Dr Silvana Bettiol – University of Tasmania
On December 7, 2021, Australia became the 136th State party to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Convention seeks to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. It addresses 11 of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
A Conference of the Parties to the Convention meeting in Bali in March 2022 highlighted the need for countries to focus on anthropogenic releases encouraging research to determine reduction levels to align with Minamata Initial Assessment for benchmarking. While there is great support for making mercury history, many countries expressed a need for time to adopt alternate products and to establish waste management systems for mercury in their countries. By ratifying the Convention, Australia has accepted the provisions of the Convention as binding in international law; and the obligation to implement its provisions (1,2).
Mercury is a highly toxic, globally dispersed heavy metal of great public and environmental health concern. It bioaccumulates with no safe exposure level for humans and may also cause serious harm to ecosystems and wildlife. The effects of mercury exposure can occur at very low levels, resulting in significant neurological and other effects to the immune system, brain, heart, kidneys, and lungs. Many communities worldwide are at risk of mercury exposure and the health consequences that follow.
People are more likely to be exposed to mercury contamination by consuming food, particularly fish and shellfish, that contains the organic compound methylmercury. Globally, populations and the environment may also be exposed to mercury through everyday products such as batteries, lamps, cosmetics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and dental amalgam. Mercury is also used in numerous industrial processes, for example, polyvinyl chloride and chlorine production.
Mercury has the capacity for long-range atmospheric transport of both anthropogenic and naturally occurring mercury. The UN report Global Mercury Assessment noted that human activities had increased the total atmospheric mercury concentrations by about 450% above natural levels (1).
There are significant obligations and legal responsibilities that the Australian Government must address (2,3). These include not allowing new primary mercury mining, phasing out existing primary mercury mining within 15 years (Art. 3 cll 3 and 4); identifying and managing existing stocks (Art 3 cl. 5); and complying with restrictions on exports and imports (Art 3 cll 6-13). Further, and similar, restrictions are placed on mercury-added products (Art. 4).
Action cannot be taken to halt or minimise human risks of mercury contamination if communities are not tested for exposure. The Convention encourages parties to promote the development and implementation of strategies and programmes to identify and protect populations at risk; set targets for exposure reduction; engage in public education and research; exchange information, and establish or strengthen the institutional and health professional capacities for the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of health risks related to exposure to mercury and mercury compounds (Arts 16-19).
Several Australian Government agencies currently provide legislative and policy frameworks to protect communities from toxic chemicals. These authorities include the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme, and Therapeutic Goods Administration (5). These agencies are already implementing many of the legal obligations contained in the Convention; for example, our participation in the Basel Convention (Art 11) on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention), which regulates the manufacture, import, export and disposal of hazardous substances.
The Australian Department of the Environment and Energy report (3) identified numerous industries that may be potentially affected by the ratification of the Convention. These industries will need to implement a number of controls and reductions for a range of products and processes in which mercury is used, released to land and water or emitted to air, in order to demonstrate Australia’s compliance. Common sources of mercury emissions in Australia include air emissions from coal-fired thermal power stations and non-ferrous smelting facilities; and emissions to land from mercury-containing fungicides and pesticides used by sugar cane and other growers. Other significant sources include waste incineration, leaking batteries and thermometers and amalgam waste from dental practices. Since 2020, registration of mercury-containing fungicides has been cancelled, and the use by growers has consequently significantly declined. Similarly, Australia has followed other Parties in the global phase-down of the use of dental amalgam through measures identified in Annex A Part 11 of the Convention.
In order to implement its obligations under the Convention, the Federal Government will need to liaise with the States and Territories in order to ensure that their regulation is able to deliver Commonwealth commitments. (2). Australia’s mercury concentrations will also depend on collective and global cooperation to reduce emissions levels by all countries.
Mercury levels reported in Australian populations are limited, with data only available from a study on maternal blood mercury levels conducted in Perth and southwest Western Australia (6). An assessment on the health benefits of reducing mercury from this study, outlined the detrimental effects of mercury exposure of pregnant women and their infants (5).
By ratifying the Convention, Australia has recognised the need for global action and has demonstrated its acceptance of its responsibility as a global citizen and for taking leadership in the Asia/Pacific region.
There are potential opportunities for Australia in joining other countries to regulate mercury supply, trade and management through innovative and creative solutions—an opportunity for Australia to develop sustainability strategies to contribute to a more healthy planet.
- UNEP Minimata Convention on Mercury (internet) Available from https://www.mercuryconvention.org/en/news/australia-becomes-136th-party-minamata-convention
- Minamata Convention on Mercury – Text and Annexes (internet) Available from https://www.mercuryconvention.org/en/resources/minamata-convention-mercury-text-and-annexes
- Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment 2020, Ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury: Final Regulation Impact Statement, Canberra. CC BY 4.0. Available from https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/chemicals-management/mercury.
- Mercury Australia (Internet) (reviewed March 2022) available from https://www.mercury-australia.com.au/
- Cost-Benefit Analysis of phasing down mercury Marsden Jacob Associates prepared for the Department of the Environment and Energy (internet) Available from https://www.awe.gov.au/environment/protection/publications/cost-benefits-australia-phasing-down-mercury
- Hinwood AL, Callan AC, Ramalingam M, Boyce M, Heyworth J, McCafferty P, Odland JO 2013. ‘Cadmium, lead and mercury exposure in non-smoking pregnant women’, Environmental Research, October, 126:118–124
Dr Bettiol is a Senior Lecturer of Public Health and Communicable Disease. Tasmanian School of Medicine, University of Tasmania, and is Treasurer of the PHAA Tasmania branch.
Image: Mercury has escaped a thermometer. Tavo Romann/Wikimedia