BREAKING: Minamata Mercury – Finally, a UNEP success story?

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is the parent of a plethora of panels, platforms and … scary stories.

They haven’t been particularly successful in getting The Future [They] Want via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its “primary client” the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

I reported a few days ago on the deliberations that began in Geneva on Jan. 13. This evening, as I was driving home in my trusty ’92 Toyota Tercel (and doing my best to emit some good old CO2), I heard on the CBC news that the nations of the world (well, 140 of them, anyway) have reached an agreement on a ban (of sorts) on the use of mercury.

Because I don’t always trust the CBC as a news source, I did seek confirmation of this news. And here it is … straight from the keyboard of good old Nick Nutall, all-around contact guy at the conclusion of so many of these UNEP confabs. It even includes a quote from the always authoritative Achim Steiner, head honcho of the UNEP:

Minamata Convention Agreed by Nations

19/ 01/ 2013

Global Mercury Agreement to Lift Health Threats from Lives of Millions World-Wide

Geneva/Nairobi, 19 January 2013 – International effort to address mercury-a notorious heavy metal with significant health and environmental effects-was today delivered a significant boost with governments agreeing to a global, legally-binding treaty to prevent emissions and releases.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury-named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century-provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.

These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors.

The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.


Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which convened the negotiations among over 140 member states in Geneva, said at the close:” After complex and often all night sessions here in Geneva, nations have today laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century.”

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva- in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he said.


The negotiations were initially looking to set thresholds on the size of plants or level of emissions to be controlled. But it was decided this week to defer this until the first meeting of the treaty after it comes into force.

Notes to Editors

Background to the fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury (INC5)

Global Mercury Assessment 2013

Time to Act
For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson on Tel: +254 733632755 or when travelling +41 79 596 5737 [emphasis added -hro]

In my earlier post, I had noted that:

I’m not sure where in the UNEP pecking-order an “Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee” (INC) might stand vis a vis an IP (as in IPCC, “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change”) or even a different IP (as in IPBES, “Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” )

There may (or may not) be some significance in the extent to which the subject matter is incorporated into the official acronym.

I fully recognize that a sample of one success is not exactly anything to write home about; but perhaps the powers that be at the UNEP might ask themselves: “Is it time to dial-down the high profile Intergovernmental Panels and Platforms?”

Why not settle for the (possibly) more productive – and far lower profile – Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee? And for the UNEP’s sake, let’s hope that Minimata does not meet the same ignoble fate as Kyoto.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what solutions are proposed to address the problems caused by the “energy saving lightbulbs” they’ve been flogging far and wide for some years, now.

15 thoughts on “BREAKING: Minamata Mercury – Finally, a UNEP success story?

    • Well, I am not a dentist (although my grandfather was!) but it would seem that the views of the anti-mercury 700 I mentioned in my earlier post were somewhat outweighed by the position of the American Dental Association:

      Statement on Dental Amalgam

      ADA Council on Scientific Affairs

      Revised: August 2009

      Dental amalgam is considered a safe, affordable and durable material that has been used to restore the teeth of more than 100 million Americans. It contains a mixture of metals such as silver, copper and tin, in addition to mercury, which binds these components into a hard, stable and safe substance. Dental amalgam has been studied and reviewed extensively, and has established a record of safety and effectiveness.

      The FDI World Dental Federation and the World Health Organization concluded in a 1997 consensus statementi: “No controlled studies have been published demonstrating systemic adverse effects from amalgam restorations.” Another conclusion of the report stated that, aside from rare instances of local side effects of allergic reactions, “the small amount of mercury released from amalgam restorations, especially during placement and removal, has not been shown to cause any … adverse health effects.”


      The ADA Council on Scientific Affairs prepared a comprehensive literature review (PDF) on amalgam safety that summarizes the state of the evidence for amalgam safety over the last five years (from January 2004 to April 2009). Based on the results of this review, the Council reaffirmed at its July 2009 meeting that the scientific evidence supports the position that amalgam is a valuable, viable and safe choice for dental patients.

      On July 28, 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final rule on encapsulated dental amalgam classifying amalgam and its component parts, elemental mercury and powder alloy, as a class II medical device. Previously there was no classification for encapsulated amalgam, and dental mercury (class I) and alloy (class II) were classified separately. This new regulation places encapsulated amalgam in the same class of devices as most other restorative materials, including composite and gold fillings. At the same time, the FDA also reaffirmed the agency’s position that the material is a safe and effective restorative option for patients.

      The CSA supports ongoing research on the safety of existing dental materials and in the development of new materials, and continues to believe that amalgam is a valuable, viable and safe choice for dental patients. [emphasis added -hro]

      I haven’t looked at the actual wording of the treaty (which still has to be signed before it comes into force). However, in keeping with its past practice of ‘policy first, evidence (if any can be found or manufactured) later’, the UNEP’s press release indicates that notwithstanding the above:

      Delegates agreed to a phase-down of the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam

      Oh, well … it would seem that the question mark in my choice of title for this post is not without justification!

    • There’s a long story behind the ADA’s position which includes holding patents on dental amalgam. Very likely they are afraid of class action lawsuits by patients claiming to have been harmed. Dental associations in other countries are much less dismissive of the possibility of harm, and legal differences are a likely explanation. The concept of punitive damages is non-existent at least in my country, Norway.

      You might argue that harm has not been definitively proved. On the other hand, it’s highly likely at least in some cases. Heavy gum-chewers, among others, can have exposures above occupational safety limits. And standard toxicological risk assessments indicate likelihood of subclinical neurological impairment among a minority even at typical exposure levels. And when you expose a whole population, even a small minority can be a large number of people.

    • As usual, you need to look at the actual evidence instead of trusting the “experts”. The actual experts, by the way, are not dentists. They’re risk assessment experts, neurotoxicologists, epidemiologists, etc.

    • Hi Dagfinn,

      Thanks for this (and your previous comment). I quite agree that one should examine the actual evidence – and I would not presume to be sufficiently knowledgeable to assess any of it!

      However, my main point [see my reply to Geoff Chambers, above] is it that would appear that UNEP offers no scientifically valid reason for incorporating a “phase down” of the use of mercury in dental amalgam.

      The view from here, so to speak, is that mercury-in-dental-amalgam issue has the potential to mirror the ever-raging “CO2 as “primary cause” of CAGW controversy.

    • It’s also the case that dental offices have been a major contributor to mercury pollution in wastewater, and this has been considered a separate valid argument by environmental authorities. In fact, even human feces from amalgam bearers (most of which has not been absorbed into the body) is significant, although that’s not something that’s discussed.

      But an important aspect of the background for this is that “the environment” is always considered with some degree of application of the “precautionary principle”. In other words, you don’t have to prove harm to have grounds for removing a toxic substance. Whereas dental amalgam has been considered from a medical point of view using a different set of criteria. Environmentalists have never been much concerned with dental amalgam since it’s not considered environmental.

    • In other words, “scientifically valid reason” is different in the environmental and medical/dental universes. You could say the threshold for action is different, but that’s a political, ethical or personal issue, not a scientific one. As with AGW.

  1. I was confused by your quote from Achim Steiner:
    “Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva – in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come”.
    So, is this about Arctic dwellers and small scale goldminers (a tiny proportion of the world’s population, hardly requiring world-wide legislation) or is it about everybody who’s ever been born or who ever will be born?
    so I had a look at your link

    The left hand contents bar reads:

    Harmful Substances:
    Lead & Cadmium
    UNEP’s Work

    I’ll take their word for it that lead, cadmium, mercury and actors are bad for you, but I’m surprised they include their own work among the harmful substances. Maybe we should form an intergovernmental committee to get it banned.

    • Geoff, the UNEP is nothing if not confusing and ambiguous! And their work may well turn out to be the “greatest threat to the future of our planet”.

      So perhaps – as you suggest – we do need to form an “Integovernmental committee” … although, I’m beginning to suspect that it may be the non-governmental (sub-committees?!) that are far more influential than their “observer status” would warrant,

      Consider, for example, mercury in dental amalgam … The press release indicates that the INC delgates agreed to:

      a phase-down of the use of dental fillings using mercury amalgam

      Here’s what the UNEP’s very own “Global Mercury Assessment – Current mercury exposures and risk evaluations for humans” has to say about dental amalgams:(p. 62 of pdf available here)

      [Elemental mercury vapour from ambient air and dental fillings]

      284. Release of mercury from amalgam fillings has been reviewed by [citations of literature – presumably all peer-reviewed -hro]

      However, the Working Group for this Global Mercury Assessment, in line with its mandate, focused on environmental exposures to mercury and their adverse effects on health, and did not review or assess the potential effects of exposures to elemental mercury vapour from dental amalgams or the possible conversion to other mercury forms in the body. Moreover, the Working Group did not reach any conclusions about whether or not dental amalgams cause adverse effects. [emphasis added -hro]

      So I wonder how many years (and confabs) will it take before the use of “dental amalgam” – which, according to the American Dental Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs, is a “valuable, viable and safe choice for dental patients” – morphs into one of the greatest threats to the future of the planet?!

      If this is the way they choose to proceed – i.e. creating a “global legally binding treaty” which incorporates a “phase-down” of material for which their very own “Assessment” report reached no conclusions – perhaps I need to change the title of this post to “.Minamata . failure in the making?”

  2. And let me add that the similarity between the two issues is clear to me. I believed in the official story about AGW until I saw Rajendra Pachauri comparing climate skeptics to flat-earthers. That’s when all my alarm bells rangs, since I’d been accused in similar ways when I questioned the safety of dental amalgam starting in the early 1990s. I had to know what I was talking about whereas the proponents of the “consensus” could spout nonsense freely.

    But to me, that’s all over. I won that battle. We got it banned here in Norway. The situation is still surreal in the US, but that’s not my problem.

    Of course, the difference is that now, with AGW, alarmism is the official position. Back then it was the opposite: don’t scare people. They’re two sides of the same coin though, the idea that a “scientific” elite can and should be manipulating people emotionally instead of telling them the truth.

    • Hi Dagfinn, thanks for posting this. I did watch the video. But I note that:

      Published on Jan 17, 2013
      “Dental Mercury’s Toxic Journey Into The Environment” was narrated by Robert Lamarck and produced as a collaborative effort between The International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology, the website Mercury Exposure and the film You Put What In My Mouth? a documentary about the devastating effects of dental mercury on patients, staff and the environment.

      The IAOMT has sent a distinguished panel of experts to attend the International Negotiating Committee (INC5) meeting being held in Geneva by the United Nations Environmental Programme. The INC5 is writing a Globally Binding Treaty that will eliminate the use and trade of mercury and mercury containing products. Dental Mercury accounts for 10% of the annual global emissions and therefore is considered a significant contributor. The IAOMT group of experts will represent our position that mercury amalgam is a risk to the environment, dental workers and the general public, and whose use should be discontinued as there are many suitable alternatives available. [emphasis added -hro]

      I’m not sure who designated these unnamed members of this “distinguished panel of experts” as “experts” – and what they might have done to deserve such a designation.

      The IAOMT is the group of 700 anti-mercury dentists I wrote about in my previous post.

      And they keep saying that “many suitable alternatives” are available. But if any have ever been named, I must have missed it!

      But the view from here, so to speak, is that mercury (and/or specifically mercury in dental amalgam) is yet another UNEP scare-in-waiting … waiting to be elevated from its current status of “harmful substance” to politically divisive “greatest threat to the future of the planet”, especially since human-generated CO2 is not quite working out as planned!

      And if they’re so concerned about mercury in the environment (and as a threat to human health), why in Gaia’s name have they been flogging mercury-laden light-bulbs – as a replacement for those which are far less costly and less damaging – for so many years?

      All I’m suggesting is that with the UN/UNEP’s abysmal record at everything they touch, perhaps it’s time that the world took a giant step back for a very thorough look before blindly leaping onto any more UNEP scary story bandwagons.

      Call it my invocation of the “precautionary principle”, if you like ;-)

    • I sympathize with your skepticism of the UN and the UNEP. But dental amalgam is not another scare in waiting, for the simple reason it’s on it’s way out. Because there ARE suitable alternatives. They’re just somewhat more expensive, since they require more work on the part of the dentist. And as I understand it, many health plans in the US only cover amalgam.

      As I mentioned, dental amalgam completely banned now here in Norway and has been for even longer in Sweden. And I assure you, dentists have a lot of power over what the health authorities do about it. Dentists would never accept phasing out amalgam if it were really such a technically superior material. It may have been, 20, 15, even 10 years ago, but not any more.

      If you really know the details of modern dental materials, I can get them for you.

    • Dagfinn, I did find some actually:

      17. Where does all this leave me as a dental patient? What sort of attitude should I take to dental amalgam?

      Take a common sense approach to your decisions about dental amalgam. Discuss your situation with your dentist and determine if there are special reasons to be cautious about amalgam use in your case. Your dentist wants you to be aware of the conclusions reached in the range of scientific studies on dental amalgam.

      And don’t just decide to have your amalgam fillings removed in response to media reports focussing on selected scientific studies. If you have strong personal concerns, ask about alternative restorative materials (such as composite fillings, ceramic inlays or onlays, or gold castings) as your fillings need to be replaced.

      Incidentally, in this same FAQ of the Canadian Dental Association (CDA), I also found the following:

      5. What amount of mercury does a person take into the body from natural sources and how much comes from amalgam fillings?

      The amount depends on a number of factors, such as the type of food you eat, your occupational exposure, environmental levels and the number of amalgam fillings you have. Health Canada estimates that for the average Canadian adult 20 to 59 years old the amount of mercury absorbed by the body from all sources is about nine millionths of a gram per day. Of this total dental amalgam is estimated to contribute about three millionths of a gram per day.

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