International Treaty Seeks to Curb Global Mercury Emissions

February 5, 2013

Did you know that the term “mad as a hatter” refers to the mental illnesses suffered by 19th century milliners from their exposure to mercury, a highly toxic element that was used to shape felt hats?

Mercury’s damaging effect on human and environmental health has been documented for years. The US and most European governments already have strict regulations on mercury emissions; however, a recent report from the United Nations Environmental Program reveals that mercury emissions are increasing around the world.

The rise in emissions is widely attributed to precious metal mining projects, coal fired power plants and melting polar ice caps.

In response to the growing threat, over 140 countries signed on to a legally-binding treaty that was agreed upon during UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. While the agreement must still be ratified by individual nations, it is a significant step toward dealing with the global crisis of toxic mercury.

2009 Goldman Prize recipient Yuyun Ismawati has been working to raise awareness about the dangers of mercury emissions for years, especially in regard to emissions from gold mines, saying, “Gold mining in poor communities is sweet for gold traders but bitter for children. The true price of gold will never equal the cost of brain damage, contaminated communities, and the impacts of child labor.”

Ismawati was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2009 for her work to implement sustainable community-based waste and sanitation management programs in Indonesia that provide employment opportunities to low-income people and empower them to improve the environment. Today, Ismawati calls her work with mercury her “new passion.”