Global: Governments Fail to Plan Phase Out of Mercury Use in Small-scale Mining Where Child Labor Exists – IIECL
After rounds of intensive talks, which began in 2010, on January 19, 2013, 140 governments agreed to an international mercury treaty that encourages governments to do more to address the threat of mercury to health and safety. This marks the first environmental treaty that contains specific action on the prevention and treatment of mercury poisoning. The treaty does address to some extent the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, in various products and processes, and in emissions from industrial facilities, such as coal-fired power plants, but fails to set timeline for the complete phase out of mercury in small-scale mining where child labor exists.The treaty will be called the “Minamata Convention” after one of the worst mercury poisoning disasters that occurred in Japan in 1956. The convention is slated to be adopted at an upcoming 2013 meeting in October in Japan at which time it will be open for signatures. While legally binding, the convention technically will not be ratified until after 50 countries have signed on.
“While this treaty is a positive development, much more could have been done to make government health plans mandatory to address mercury and its complete phase out,” says Diane Mull, Executive Director of the International Initiative to End Child Labor (IIECL). “The health risks to mercury exposure are well known and documented. This highly toxic liquid metal attacks the central nervous system, is linked to behavioral and neurological disorders among individuals with concentrated and chronic exposures, and is especially hazardous to children and women of child-bearing age.” (Visit IIECL’s photo gallery on mining)
“Mercury is often used in informal gold mining where children can be found actively engaged in the collection and processing of gold. Mercury is commonly used in informal mining with gold and children, completely unaware of its dangers, are using their bare hands to sift gold fragments treated with mercury and exposed to the fumes when the mercury is being burned off gold fragments,” says Mull. “I’ve witnessed, photographed and filmed children engaged in the collection and processing of gold treated with mercury. They have no idea of the acute or chronic effects that such work can have on their health.”
Artisanal and informal gold mining on a small scale is one of the largest sources of mercury pollution. Each government is required under the treaty to create a national action plan to ban the most harmful forms of mercury use, promote mercury-free mining processes, protect children and women of childbearing age, and improve the health of mining workers.
“However, the treaty does not go far enough,” says Mull. “The treaty fails to specifically address child labor and sets no specific timeline for the complete phase out of the use of mercury for artisanal and small-scale mining. This convention is a good step in the right direction, but more could be done,” says Mull.