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IAEA Joins the UNEP Global Partnership to Reduce Mercury Emissions

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A scientist preparing a sample to analyse mercury at the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco. (Photo: IAEA)

The IAEA and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joined forces in April to better protect human health and global ecosystems from sustained releases of mercury and its toxic derivative compounds into the environment. The UNEP Global Mercury Partnership was initiated in 2005 with the goal of minimizing, and where feasible, ultimately eliminating the release of mercury and its compounds into the air, water and land. The Global Mercury Partnership focuses on those sectors that use and release mercury or process raw materials that contain mercury, as well as areas engaged in mercury management and science.

Mercury is a highly toxic element in the environment that is found both naturally and as an anthropogenic contaminant. It can accumulate in the body and in high concentrations can cause damage to the brain and the central nervous system.

As the only marine laboratories in the UN system, the IAEA Environment Laboratories have been for decades at the forefront of providing customized analytical methods for detection and monitoring of mercury and methyl mercury in diverse marine samples, such as fish or shellfish, marine sediment and seawater – using nuclear and isotopic techniques. IAEA scientists are developing new detection methods and analytical procedures for monitoring mercury in the marine environment, as well as for studying the transfer of toxic pollutants up the food chain.

“This new partnership will enhance global capacity to successfully carry out these studies around the world,” said Peter Swarzenski, Acting Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories, based in Monaco. “Precise marine pollution assessments and accurate baseline information of contaminant concentrations are fundamental to better understand the potential impacts of such toxic compounds on the environment.”

According to the World Health Organization, mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public concern, due in part to its persistence and tendency to accumulate in living organisms and the environment as a whole. Mercury is a highly volatile contaminant which does not respect borders. Once mercury has entered the ocean or lakes it is further biomagnified through the food chain. Populations that depend on seafood are at especially high risk.

The participation of the Agency sends a strong signal on the utmost importance of global cooperation to address the threat posed by mercury, and will undoubtedly bring a major contribution to the Partnership's work in developing knowledge and science, raising awareness towards global action on mercury and supporting timely and effective implementation of the Minamata Convention.
Monika G. MacDevette, Chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch, Economy Division of UNEP

Turbot bred at the IAEA's environment laboratores, where researchers use nuclear science to better understand bioaccumulation of mercury in fish. (Photo: F. Oberhaensli/IAEA)

As one of the main mechanisms for the delivery of immediate actions on mercury, the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership also facilitates the timely ratification and implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Convention sets a framework to eliminate or limit numerous mercury-emitting processes and products and limit mercury emissions. It calls upon Member States to establish and strengthen environmental mercury monitoring efforts. 

"Today, the two major man-made sources of mercury emissions are the burning of fossil fuels and artisanal gold mining," said Swarzenski.

“While these sectors cannot simply cease operations, they need to improve their environmental performances. It is crucial to take a holistic and realistic approach to the problem, and the Minamata Convention in concert with the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership provides a platform for the reduction or control of mercury pollution sources.”

In supporting the Global Mercury Partnership goal’s on protecting human health and the environment, the IAEA is making available analytical methods, which include nuclear and isotopic techniques, and tools for the quality assurance and control of environmental monitoring of hazardous pollutants, such as mercury and its most toxic organic form, monomethyl-mercury.

“UNEP is thrilled to be welcoming the IAEA as a member of the Global Mercury Partnership,” said Monika G. MacDevette, Chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch, Economy Division of UNEP. “The participation of the Agency sends a strong signal on the utmost importance of global cooperation to address the threat posed by mercury, and will undoubtedly bring a major contribution to the Partnership's work in developing knowledge and science, raising awareness towards global action on mercury and supporting timely and effective implementation of the Minamata Convention.”

Other members include the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Inductrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) among other stakeholders from governments, industry, non-governmental organizations, and academia who are dedicated to ending global mercury pollution.

Reference materials produced by the IAEA laboratories play an important role in increasing the accuracy and certainty of environmental mercury measurements. The IAEA is also providing assistance on testing proficiency of laboratories worldwide in analyzing those compounds in environmental samples.

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