Mercury rising: China takes part in mercury control talks

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Feature Story - 2011-11-03
This week government representatives from all parts of the world, including China, are finishing talks in Nairobi for decreasing the use of mercury. China has a rather large stake in the talks; seeing that coal-burning power plants – the country's biggest source of power – spews large amounts of mercury into the air and water every day, and the threat of mercury poisoning is becoming greater by the minute. By Evan Brooks.

Coal factories in China


China is so involved, in fact, that Yingxian Xia, a deputy director of the Ministry of Environment Protection, is a member of the organizing bureau. This could mean good news for decreasing the use of mercury in Chinese manufacturing and energy production, which is even better news for the people of China, who breathe, eat and drink small amounts of mercury every day. Those small amounts eventually add up and can be dangerous, especially for unborn children.

Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Wang Ying wrote an opinion piece for the November 1 edition of the Global Times to talk more about mercury in China and the talks in Nairobi. In the article, she says that much of mercury pollution comes from coal-burning power plants, which spew nasty chemicals into the air and even nastier chemicals into the water every day. In recent years, countless Chinese children and adults have been poisoned by mercury.

Mercury has nasty effects on the human body. It can cause ailments like brain damage, numbness, loss of motor functions, birth defects, and of course death. Mercury poisoning has manifested throughout history in several circumstances.

Perhaps the most egregious example, however, occurred during the 1950s and 1960s in Minamata, Japan. During that time, an epidemic outbreak of mercury poisoning, caused by mercury in the wastewater of a nearby chemical factory, led to the death of more than 1,000 people and ruined the lives of many more.

In Minamata, mercury from the chemical factory flowed into the drinking water and soaked into the fish near the city. Over time, hundreds of people in the area were found to have severe neurological disorders, such as gross loss of motor function and mental retardation. Mothers, who seemingly had no symptoms, gave birth to babies with severe mental and physical retardation. Truly depressing and horrifying.

Unfortunately, mercury is still far more prevalent than it should be. That's just the reason why the United Nations Environment Program has organized this inter-government negotiating committee to put a stop to the spread of this nasty substance.

The negotiating committee aims to devise and recommend to governments some legally binding mechanisms to decrease the use of mercury in industry and manufacturing. Ultimately, the aim is to increase awareness of its harmful effects on people and the environment and to convince governments to enforce stronger regulations.

Greenpeace indeed supports work to decrease the use and prevalence of mercury and hopes that events like those in Minamata never happen again.

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