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UN Urges Leaders To Stop Mercury Threat

February 16, 2009

On Sunday the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) urged environmental leaders to curb the use of mercury, a highly toxic metal.

“The world’s environment ministers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya this week can take a landmark decision to lift a global health threat from the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP. “Inaction on the global mercury challenge is no longer an option.”

More than 100 environmental ministers from across the globe will meet in Nairobi February 16-20 for UNEP’s annual council meeting.

Millions of people worldwide are poisoned by mercury each year. Humans are primarily exposed to the toxic metal through fish-eating.

In Sweden, nearly 50,000 lakes have fish with mercury levels exceeding health limits.

“Women of child-bearing years are advised not to eat pike, perch, burbot and eel at all: the rest of the population only once a week,” Steiner said.

Mercury, which is associated with coal production, plastics, and the improper disposal of fluorescent light bulbs, can cause damage to a person’s brain, kidney, and lungs.

“No one alive today is free from some level of mercury contamination,” he said. “The World Health Organization argues there is in the end no safe limit.”

According to Steiner, a drafted policy seven years in the making would be revealed to ministers at the assembly.

“It covers reducing demand in products and processes — such as high intensity discharge vehicle lamps and the chlor-alkali industry — and mercury in international trade,” he said.

“Other elements include reducing emissions to the atmosphere and cleaning contaminated sites,” Steiner added.

One-third of mercury entering the environment comes from power stations and coal fires said Steiner.

“In the atmosphere or released down river systems, the toxin can travel hundreds and thousands of miles,” he added.

According to UNEP, climate change is also affecting the amount of mercury being released into the oceans.

As global warming causes ice in the Arctic to melt, mercury trapped in ice and sediments will be re-released into the food chain.

In a statement issued by UNEP, the group also said they had found a wide range of cost-effective solutions to the mercury problem.

“A clear and unequivocal vision of a low mercury future needs to be set. This will trigger innovation and an ever greater array of cost effective alternatives,” Steiner said.

The action to stop the mercury threat could also have financial implications.

“We estimate that every kilogram (2.2 lbs) of mercury taken out of the environment can trigger up to $12,500 worth of social, environmental and human health benefits,” Steiner said.

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