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Mercury mining has seen a massive increase in the last decade, UN report finds

Despite huge global efforts to reduce mercury production the reality is that there has been a spike in the mining of the dangerous neurotoxin.

This increase is a major challenge to the Minamata Convention, which came into force in August, and seeks to limit Mercury production, consumption and pollution around the globe.

New figures, published by the United Nations Environment Programme last week, show that up to 2,150 tonnes of mercury were mined globally in 2015.

This compares to an figure of up to 1,600 tonnes in 2005.

Experts are now warning that countries who are part of Minamata Convention must report on the mercury trade in their countries on a more frequent basis so that any increase in trade or production can be dealt with.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that cause severe damage to the human nervous system. It generally gets into the human food chain through fish who have come into contact with mercury pollution.

The UN report explains that the increase in mercury extraction is down to new mines in Mexico and Indonesia. The report states:

“A second fundamental change in mercury supply is the emergence of new mercury mining in Mexico and Indonesia, with production estimated at 800 – 1,100 tonnes in 2015.”

It goes on to say how this is a particular challenge for the Minimata Convention:

“The Minamata Convention requires Parties to phase out existing mercury mining. Once such operations are established, however, and mining communities become accustomed to the economic benefits, it may be difficult to phase out these mining activities and disrupt the social structure that has developed around them.”

Much of that mercury is used in artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM), the largest source of global mercury pollution.

Currently, countries do not have reliable information about trade in neighbouring countries and within their own region. This problem is compounded where borders between countries are ‘porous’, and a significant portion of trade is informal or illegal. For example, mercury may enter a region through legal trade to one country, but then be traded illegally across borders to neighbouring countries.

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Project Manager, Zero Mercury Campaign at the European Environmental Bureau, said:

“Informal trade is difficult to track, and therefore does not appear in the official trade statistics. With timely reporting, Parties can better understand mercury flows in order to better enforce trade restrictions in the Convention.”

Michael Bender, Co-coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group, said:

“In recent years there have been a number of shocks to the global market, resulting in a doubling of the price of mercury in the last 12 months alone. In addition, EU and US export bans now in place have resulted in a major shift in the main trading hub to Asia.”

Satish Sinha, Associate Director at Toxics Link in India, said:

“The emergence over the past five years of new small-scale producers of mercury in Mexico and Indonesia has made a difficult situation worse. Between these two countries alone, around 1000 tonnes are produced annually.”

Rico Euripidou, Environmental Health Campaign Manager at groundWork in South Africa, said:

“The main objective of the Minamata Convention is to protect human health and the environment by, in part, simultaneously reducing mercury supply and demand.”

Without adequate reporting on the global movement of mercury it will be difficult to monitor the overall effectiveness of the Convention, say NGOs.

Leslie Adogame, Executive Director at Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development in Nigeria, said:

“Annual reporting is consistent with the requirements of other environmental conventions such as Basel and the Montreal Protocol. Legal trade flows must be understood before informal or illegal trade can be adequately addressed.”