Hazardous Effects of Mercury on Health and Environment - Seeker's Thoughts

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Hazardous Effects of Mercury on Health and Environment

Mercury is a naturally-occurring heavy metal that is found in air, soil, and water.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. 

Even small amounts of mercury exposure can be toxic and have serious health impacts. Mercury affects the digestive, nervous, and immune systems. It also adversely affects the kidneys, lungs, eyes, skin, etc. 

Victims may suffer memory loss or language impairment, and the damage to the brain cannot be reversed. Even small amounts can cause health effects and hence, there is no known safe exposure level for elemental mercury in human beings.

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Children, infants, and fetuses are the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury. Mercury is easily transported worldwide through the environment and so the hazardous effects can reach even remote places.

Mercury is released into the atmosphere through natural processes such as weathering of rocks, volcanic eruptions, geothermal activities, forest fires, etc.

Apart from these natural processes, mercury is also released through human activities. Because of its many unique properties, mercury has been used for various purposes for hundreds of years. In modern times, mercury is used in many industrial processes, in gold mining, etc. It is also used in many products like energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, electrical switches, batteries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, jewelry, cement production, paint, and as preservatives in vaccines.

It is also produced during the incineration of many kinds of wastes. Once released, mercury persists in the environment and can be circulated between air, water, and the soil. Mercury enters into organisms and converts into methylmercury, which then concentrates up the food chain.

The local population, which ate this seafood, suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of this.

Mercury’s harmful effects were known to mankind since the 50s, especially because of the infamous Minamata Disease, which was first seen in the city of Minamata, Japan. In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiated an assessment of, among others, the health effects of mercury and its compounds.

In 2003, the Governing Council of the UNEP considered this assessment and decided that there was enough evidence to warrant strong action in this regard by governments. In 2005 and 2007, a mercury program was initiated by governments with the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership, to reduce the adverse effects of mercury on health and the environment.

The UNEP decided to make a legally binding agreement on mercury in 2009, after which an intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) was established. The INC held five sessions from 2010 to 2013.

After the fifth session, the Convention was agreed upon and adopted. It was opened for signature for one year at a Conference of Plenipotentiaries (Diplomatic Conference) in Kumamoto, Japan. The first meeting of the COP to the Convention was held in Geneva in 2017. The Convention entered into force in August 2017 after the 50th country ratified it

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an important international treaty intended to protect health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international environmental treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury and its compounds. 

It addresses specific human activities that are contributing to large-scale mercury pollution.It is expected that the implementation of this Convention will reduce mercury pollution over the next few decades.

The Convention was signed in 2013 and entered into force in 2017. It is a UN treaty coming under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).128 countries are signatories to the Convention, and 119 countries are parties to it. India is a party to the Minamata Convention and ratified it in 2018.

the objective of the Minamata Convention is “to protect the human health and the environment from the anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.”

The Convention contains, in support of this objective, provisions that relate to the entire life cycle of mercury, including controls and reductions across a range of processes, products, and industries where mercury is used, emitted, or released. The Convention also includes provisions relating to mercury mining, its export and import, storage, and disposal.

The Treaty also covers areas such as the identification of at-risk populations, improving healthcare facilities, and training healthcare personnel to better tackle mercury-related ailments and diseases.

Areas covered under the Convention:

  1. Mercury supply sources and trade
  2. Manufacturing processes in which mercury or mercury compounds are used
  3. Mercury-added products
  4. Emissions to air
  5. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining
  6. Releases to land and water
  7. Mercury wastes
  8. Environmentally sound interim storage of mercury, other than mercury waste
  9. Health aspects
  10. Contaminated sites

What can be done to reduce mercury release?

Reducing or eliminating these releases may require:

Investments in controlling releases from and substituting the use of mercury-contaminated raw materials and feedstocks, the main source of mercury releases from "unintentional" uses; and

Reducing or eliminating the use of mercury in products and processes, the main source of releases caused by the "intentional" use of mercury.

The specific methods for controlling mercury releases from these sources vary widely, depending upon local circumstances, but fall generally under the following four groups:

Reducing mercury mining and consumption of raw materials and products that generate mercury releases;ducim

Substitution (or elimination) of products, processes, and practices containing or using mercury with non-mercury alternatives;

Controlling mercury releases through end-of-pipe techniques;

Mercury waste management.

The first two of these are "preventive" measures – preventing some uses or releases of mercury from occurring at all. The latter two are "control" measures, which reduce (or delay) some releases from reaching the environment. Within these very general groupings are a large number of specific techniques and strategies for reducing mercury releases and exposures. Whether or not they are applied in different countries depends upon government and local priorities, information and education about possible risks, the legal framework, enforcement, implementation costs, perceived benefits, and other factors.

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Reducing consumption of raw material and products generating mercury releases.

Reducing consumption of raw materials and products that generate mercury releases is a preventive measure that is most often targeted at mercury-containing products and processes, but may also result from improved efficiencies in the use of raw materials or in the use of fuels for power generation. This group of measures could potentially include the choice of an alternative raw material such as using natural gas for power generation instead of coal, or possibly by using a coal type with special constituents (such as more chlorine), because the mercury emissions from burning this type of coal might be easier to control than other coal types.

Another possible approach in some regions might be the use of coal with a lower trace mercury content (mercury concentrations appear to vary considerably in some regions depending on the origin of the raw materials). However, there are some limitations and potential problems with this approach. For example, as in the case of the utility preference for low-sulfur crude oil, it is likely that some utilities might be willing to pay more for low-mercury coal, which effectively lowers the market value of all high-mercury coal, which in turn might lead to higher consumption of high-mercury coal in regions where utilities have less rigorous emission controls. Moreover, data collected recently in the US indicate that coal supplies in the US do not vary significantly in mercury content.

Nonetheless, such preventive measures aimed at reducing mercury emissions are generally cost-effective, except in cases where an alternative raw material is significantly more expensive or where other problems limit this approach.

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