5 February 2003 – A new report from the United Nations warns that the threat to health from mercury emissions is more serious than previously thought and is urging governments to take drastic action to reduce levels.
A United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) report says 70 per cent of mercury emissions of human origin come from coal-fired power stations even though the technology to eliminate most of them already exists
The report, Global Mercury Assessment, will be discussed at a meeting in Nairobi of Unep’s governing council from 3 to 7 February.
Mercury is a naturally occurring metal released into the environment from rocks and soils, and in volcanic eruptions. But human activities, including mining, industry and power generation, are continually adding more. Once released, mercury can travel long distances.
One of the commonest ways mercury affects people is in one of its organic forms, methylmercury. Methylmercury attacks the central nervous system; symptoms include numbness and unsteadiness, tiredness, ringing in the ears, and problems with vision, hearing and speech.
It is a particular risk to pregnant women and their foetuses, infants, children, and people whose diet includes a lot of fish.
A study of women in the US found almost five million had mercury levels above the level considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The report says coal-fired power stations and waste incinerators produce about 1,500 tonnes of atmospheric mercury emissions a year, with a further 4-500 tonnes estimated to come from mining of gold and silver using basic, non-industrial methods.
In an interview with BBC News Online James Willis, head of Unep’s chemicals division said there are technologies available already, like wet scrubbers, which will reduce mercury emissions from power stations by about 80 per cent.
“Getting down to zero is something else. But what we can do now is often cheap – and it can cut other pollutants as well.”