A mercurial step forward at UNEP

February 21, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 21- World Environment Ministers agreed on Friday to begin negotiations for a treaty to control global mercury pollution.

The agreement, reached on the last day of a week long Governing Council meeting at the UN complex in Gigiri, Nairobi, was as a result of the United States government’s shift of position to allow the creation of a legally binding agreement.

The George Bush administration had opposed any legal measures on mercury control.

“The important thing about the treaty is that now there will be a global mechanism that ensures people don’t export or import products that become toxic and more so the exporting countries will have a moral responsibility to make sure that they do not export products that are dangerous to the health of the people,” Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai remarked.

She said the treaty would ensure that countries made a serious commitment to ease global mercury emissions supply and demand.

The Nobel Laureate however said the Kenyan government also needed to put in place a strong law to control dumping of toxic chemicals in the environment.

“Just take Nairobi and imagine that a lot of effluent that comes out of garages, industries and sewers ends up in our rivers (yet) there are people drinking that water downstream. Fish that is going to be contaminated downstream and then we eat that fish,” she said.

“In overall, the protection of citizens lies in national governments.”

The agreement was reached by more than 140 countries and discussion would begin in 2010 and last until 2013. It would also ensure that the European Union and other countries of the world took actions to reduce mercury supply, its use in products and human processes and atmospheric mercury emissions which would ultimately reduce human exposure to mercury globally.

United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said that although mercury doesn’t seem to be a major problem in Kenya, a lot of imports coming into the country contained mercury which is a health risk.

Professor Maathai on the other hand said that despite the presence of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in charge of enforcing the laws, monitoring of toxic waste dumping is wanting.
“I have a friend in Nakuru who is in court trying to stop a company that has been dumping lead into the environment and it took a citizen to go and challenge the people who are doing it. That should not be the case,” she said

“NEMA should be much more vigilant but I’m sure it will say it is up to us citizens to ensure that if we see any dumping of chemicals we should draw attention,” Professor Maathai explained.

She said there should be a regulatory mechanism in place to monitor water systems and the food chain to ensure that people don’t consume any of the harmful chemicals.

“Like now we are campaigning around Lake Naivasha because there is a lot of waste being dumped into the lake and no analysis has been done to determine what kind of chemicals could be ending up in the lake,” she said.

Mercury is a global pollutant that travels long distances. Its most toxic form, methlymercury, accumulates in large predatory fish and is taken up in bodies through eating fish. Its worst impact is on foetuses and children.


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