New Treaty to Protect People from Mercury Poisoning

Written by on October 9, 2013 in Policy & Ocean Law, Whales & Dolphins

The world’s first legally binding international treaty to curb the release of mercury into the environment was formally signed today, October 9. The Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Minamata and Kumamoto, Japan.

The convention comes after four years of negotiations at the United Nations and aims to ban the operation of new mines and the use of mercury in manufacturing process, in addition to greatly limiting the manufacture, import and export of products containing mercury. It will also set guidelines on the management of mercury waste.

The location of the conference and name of the treaty is significant because Minamata was the location of the world’s worst-ever incident of mass mercury poisoning. It began in 1956 when methylmercury was discharged into the sea from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory. The mercury accumulated in the fish and shellfish in Minamata Bay and the Shuranui Sea, which then ended up on people’s plates, poisoning thousands.

As a result of the Minamata outbreak, Japan had recorded 2,265 official cases of mercury and mercury compound poisoning, of which 1,784 have already died, as of 2001. That number is only a fraction of the more than 10,000 people who received compensation from the government and Chisso and an additional 17,000 others who have applied for compensation.

Whale meat for sale in Ena, a city in the Gifu Prefecture, Japan.

Whale meat for sale in Ena, a city in the Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Photo credit: Gilgongo via photopin cc.

Now that the treaty has been signed, a coalition of NGOs (including the Environmental Investigation Agency, the Animal Welfare Institute, Campaign Whale, Elsa Nature Conservancy, OceanCare, ProWildlife and the Society for the Conservation of Marine Mammals) is urging countries to take immediate action in areas that are at risk of mercury poisoning from the consumption of whale and dolphin meat.

“For far too long, coastal communities around the world have been allowed to consume the mercury-contaminated meat of whales, dolphins and porpoises, many in ignorance of the risks involved,” said Clare Perry, Senior Campaigner at the UK-and US-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

Dolphin meat sold for human consumption in Japan has been found to have mercury levels up to 250 times higher than the Government regulatory level (98.9 parts per million) and higher than the levels found in the fish after the Minamata contamination.

In the Faroe Islands, a 20-year study led scientists to advise that the meat of pilot whales killed there is no longer safe for consumption, although government recommendations do not acknowledge that advice.

“Governments have long been well aware of the dangers to human health that come from eating whale and dolphin meat contaminated with mercury and other pollutants, but in some cases they have been neglectfully reticent when it comes to properly protecting their citizens from the risks,” said Sakae Hemmi, of Japanese NGO Elsa Nature Conservancy.

The NGOs are hoping that this treaty will highlight the serious threat that mercury-contaminated whale and dolphin meat poses to human health.

Not everybody is as optimistic about the treaty. Some say there are too many loopholes for it to be effective. Read more here.

Pilot whale.

Pilot whale. Photo credit: Mr Moss via photopin cc.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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