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More than 140 countries agree to crack down on mercury pollution

Written By Gopal Krishna on Thursday, February 26, 2009 | 12:17 AM

United Nations (PTI): In a major breakthrough propelled by a dramatic shift in the US policy, more than 140 countries, including India and China, have agreed to launch a global crackdown against pollution of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that poses serious risk to human health and environment.

The landmark decision was taken by environment ministers at the end of the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Governing Council meeting in Nairobi in Kenya on Friday, overcoming seven years of obstacles.

Governments of over 140 countries unanimously decided to launch negotiations on a legally-binding global mercury treaty to deal with world-wide emissions and discharges of a pollutant that threatens the health of millions, from foetuses and babies to small-scale gold miners and their families.

They also agreed that the risk to human health and the environment from mercury pollution was so significant that accelerated action under a voluntary Global Mercury Partnership is needed whilst the treaty is being finalised, the UNEP said.

The key factor enabling ministers to agree to a way forward has been the willingness of the new US administration led by President Barack Obama to back the treaty.

In his address to the Council earlier, US delegate Daniel Reifsnyder, said mercury was the "most important global chemical issue facing us today", and required "immediate action". He said that only international coordination could address the problem.

The previous Bush administration had steadfastly opposed legally-binding measures to control mercury.

India and China, which were also earlier opposed to legally-binding measures, lifted their resistance to a global mercury treaty at the meeting, raising hopes for progress later this year at the crucial UN meeting in Copenhagen on an international climate change deal.

During the meeting in the Kenyan capital, the ministers agreed to an eight-point interim plan to help curb pollution while awaiting the full treaty.

The eight-point partnership plan included -- boosting the world-wide capability for nations to safely store stockpiled mercury; reducing the supply of mercury from, for example, primary mining of the heavy metal; carrying out awareness raising of the risks alongside projects to cut the use of mercury in artisanal mining where an estimated 10 million miners and their families are exposed.

Other points were reducing mercury in products such as thermometers and high-intensity discharge lamps to processes such as some kinds of paper-making and plastics production.

"UNEP has, for some seven years, coordinated and contributed to an intense scientific and policy debate on how best to deal with the issue of mercury. Today the world's environment ministers, armed with the full facts and full choices, decided the time for talking was over - the time for action on this pollution is now," Achim Steiner, UN Under- Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said.
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