Kumamoto, Japan– It’s not often these days when the world’s governments agree on anything. So when Japan’s Environment Minister pounded his gavel on the table signaling the adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and an auditorium filled with high-level representatives from more than 130 countries erupted in applause, it was an expected, yet somewhat astonishing moment.
As minister after minister ascended the podium and signed the treaty aimed at phasing out the use and emissions of mercury, the world set itself on course to address one of the planet’s most serious chemical pollution problems.
On everyone’s minds in the hall was the scourge of Minamata disease, the tragedy for which the convention is named. Minamata Disease emerged in an area near here where a company, Chisso Chemical, dumped mercury into Minamata Bay from the 1930s to the late 1960s, poisoning multiple generations of residents, many of whom continue to seek redress from their government.
The Minamata disaster alerted the world to the hazards of mercury pollution. The Minamata Convention is now a beacon, signaling to the world that we must avoid such disasters in the future.
Today, mercury, which bio-accumulates up the food chain, is poisoning the world’s fish supply—a source of sustenance for much of the planet’s population. It enters the environment in myriad ways—ranging from power plants burning coal, impoverished miners using it to extract gold from the earth, and millions of thermometers breaking every year on hospital floors. Among the treaty’s most concrete commitments is the relatively rapid phase-out of mercury products, such as these medical devices.
For us at Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), the Minamata Convention’s global commitment to take action signals the culmination of more than 15 years of work undertaken in collaboration with a broad group of allies, to phase out mercury thermometers and blood pressure devices from around the world and substitute them with accurate and affordable alternatives. While health care is not the largest source of mercury emissions, it is still a significant one.
Our work began with a single hospital in Boston, moved across most of the United States and then evolved into a global campaign that engaged the health sector on every continent.
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We have worked every which way on this issue—bottom-up, top-down, and sideways. We’ve piloted mercury-free health care with individual hospitals and then scaled it up to country-wide initiatives resulting in national policies in countries like Argentina, Chile, Nepal, and the Philippines. We have educated decision-makers with scientific and economic arguments that have resulted in a full phase-out across the European Union. Together with our partners we have worked to move major municipal health systems to mercury-free health care in places like Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City.
Myriad actors have taken part in the campaign, ranging from individual nurses and doctors in local hospitals, to hospital and health system administrators in dozens of countries, to ministries of health and the environment on every continent, to global health federations, international NGO networks, and UN agencies. Our major collaborator in this work over the past eight years has been the World Health Organization (WHO).
Today, as governments gave speeches praising the treaty, HCWH and WHO got straight to work, launching a campaign to support hospitals, health systems, and ministries of health to implement the agreement and substitute their medical devices with non-mercury alternatives by 2020. As WHO’s Director of Public Health and the Environment, Dr. Maria Neira, told the assembled governments, “this is not only an environmental treaty, it is also a health treaty.”
We have learned a tremendous amount building a global campaign for mercury-free health care over the past decade and a half. For now, suffice it to say, we are moving to apply those lessons to a series of related environmental health issues.
For instance, one of the greatest concerns about mercury from a public health perspective is the expansion of coal combustion as a major source of power generation, something that the mercury treaty does precious little to tackle. Coal-fired power generation is slated to increase significantly around the world in coming years. With it, deadly air pollution, along with major mercury and greenhouse gas emissions, will continue to increase. Health professionals can play an important role in speaking out on this pressing issue.
On top of this, mercury is but one of hundreds of chemicals that can contaminate the developing child and are regularly found in our food, air, water, consumer products, and ultimately in our bodies. Having learned about the dangers of mercury exposure, the health sector is now more equipped to further detoxify its supply chain from other chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, infertility, and other health impacts. Hospitals and health systems, having started with mercury, are now increasingly working to reduce their overall environmental footprint.
In ancient Rome, Mercury was the messenger god. Today mercury the element— increasingly pervasive in the global environment—is sending us an important message regarding the simultaneously intimate and globalized connection between pollution, public health, and the environment. Indeed, mercury is a messenger for a larger global environmental health crisis that requires thinking and acting at a scale that is unprecedented in the history of civilization.