In the mid-1950s doctors in the Japanese city of Minamata began to see patients with severe neurological symptoms. Many died a horrible death. Eventually, Minamata disease was found to be the result of mercury poisoning. A nearby chemical plant was pouring a highly toxic form of mercury, methylmercury, into the sea.
Methylmercury is bio-magnified – small fish are eaten by bigger fish, and methylmercury levels increase up the food chain until the big fish are eaten by people. Now, nearly 60 years since the Minamata tragedy started, it is still important to choose the right type of fish as part of a healthy diet.
An Ongoing Problem
While large, intentional discharges of mercury may be a thing of the past, the problem of mercury pollution hasn’t gone away. Any metallic mercury released into the environment can be converted to methylmercury by the bacteria that are naturally present in water.
Mercury is still being used in ways that it shouldn’t. In less developed countries small-scale miners use mercury to help extract gold. They then heat the mercury-gold mix with a blowtorch to drive off the mercury, leaving pure gold behind. They breathe in the mercury fumes, and many develop Minamata Disease.
But even in developed countries like Australia, large amounts of mercury end up in the environment through the improper disposal of fluorescent lighting, dental and medical waste, and many other items that contain mercury. Much of this waste goes into landfill or down the drain.
Signing Minamata Convention on Mercury in NY, treaty designed to protect human health & the environment from mercury. pic.twitter.com/Zs7GplXEFk
— Marcin Korolec (@MarcinKorolec) September 25, 2014
In response to these ongoing problems the United Nations Environment Program has developed the Minamata Convention. This requires governments to “address mercury throughout its lifecycle, including its production, its intentional use in products and processes, its unintentional release from industrial activity, through to end-of-life aspects including waste, contaminated sites, and long-term storage”.
The convention has been signed by 128 countries and ratified by 11. It is expected that Australia will also ratify the convention, so the message is clear: anyone who has anything to do with mercury-containing products will need to look carefully at how those products are used and take responsibility for their safe disposal.
What You Can Do?
We can all help to reduce mercury pollution:
- If you work with mercury-containing products, read Do you work with mercury? The four things you must know about the Minamata Convention.
- Ask your dentist if they recycle mercury from removed fillings and used amalgam capsules.
- Make sure you recycle old light globes. Find out where and how.
- Phone your federal member of parliament and ask them to ensure that Australia ratifies the Minamata Convention as soon as possible.
- If you work in an office or factory, find out if the building manager makes sure that the lighting is properly recycled when it is replaced.
Get Help With Recycling Your Mercury Waste Today
If you find a situation where mercury-containing products are not being recycled, tell the person responsible that there are simple, cost-effective solutions for properly dealing with the waste and ask them to give us a call or fill in the form below: