Mercury is still an environmental threat – by Tristan Ahtone ( – November 9, 2023)

The heavy metal is poisoning Indigenous peoples’ environment and health, but no one can agree on how or when to get rid of it.

The negotiations produced no particularly big wins. There is still no agreement on a common, global method to measure and identify mercury-contaminated waste from industrial sources, like chemical manufacturers or oil and gas operators.

Mercury can still also be purchased online and traded internationally, and states could not agree on when to pull it from tooth fillings. But there were some successes: Nations have agreed to ban the use of mercury as a preservative in cosmetics by 2025 as well as to increase support for Indigenous peoples in future negotiations.

Mercury — the silvery, highly toxic heavy metal — still poses a serious environmental and health threat around the world, and last week, world leaders met in Geneva for five days of negotiations in a bid to control mercury pollution, trade, and use. Mercury is used in a range of products including skin-lightening cosmetics, batteries, fluorescent lighting, pesticides, and dental amalgams to fill cavities. It’s also a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and waste incineration.

A decade ago, the United Nations adopted the Minamata Convention on Mercury to eliminate the effects of the chemical on people and the environment. Named after Minamata Bay in Japan, where mercury-tainted wastewater poisoned more than 2,000 people in the 1950s and ’60s, the debilitating illness was dubbed Minamata disease with symptoms including hearing and speech impairment, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, and vision impairment.

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