New Zealand is taking part in negotiations to develop an international agreement on mercury. The negotiations are taking place under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Mercury is a highly toxic substance, which has serious effects on human health and on the environment.
It can cause permanent damage to the nervous system, including impaired vision, hearing and coordination. The harmful effects can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child. Infants, children and women of childbearing age are therefore particularly at risk.
The presence of mercury in the environment is a global problem, as mercury can readily enter and be widely transported through the atmosphere, oceans and the food chain. It accumulates in the food chain, and consuming food with mercury in it is a major source of exposure to mercury for both people and some animals.
Mercury is released both through natural sources such as volcanic and geothermal activity, and through human activity, such as industrial processes (e.g. cement and steel manufacturing; some forms of power generation) and waste disposal (e.g. disposal of electronic equipment contaning mercury, including some batteries and lighting equipment).
The objectives of a future agreement on mercury are likely to be protecting human health and the environment from the harmful effects of mercury released into the environment by human activity.
A future ageement could achieve this through controls and other measures in the following areas:
New Zealand’s interests are:
This does not necessarily involve the total elimination of mercury. Mercury emissions come from both human and naturally occurring sources. New Zealand, for example, has natural emissions from geothermal activity. New Zealand and many other countries have indicated that any future international agreement on mercury should cover only emissions resulting from human activity.
New Zealand’s ratification of any future mercury treaty would be subject to the usual treaty making process
Opportunity for public consultation and input will be provided as the negotiations proceed.
New Zealand differs from many other countries in having significant natural emissions of mercury from geothermal and volcanic activity. New Zealand, and many other countries, would wish to see a mercury agreement cover only those emissions that result from human activity.
The Ministry for the Environment commissioned a mercury inventory in 2008. This provides details of both natural and man-made sources of mercury.
Work has also been undertaken to address various waste management issues, including mercury. Some of these resources are shown below.
New Zealand is participating in a series of meetings of the International Negotiating Committee (INC) which take place through to 2013, as follows:
Last updated: 5 November 2010