Mercury substitution priority working list

An input to global considerations on mercury management

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Mercury is among our most serious health and environmental hazards and man-made emissions of mercury result in human exposure, directly and via fish consumption. As an input to global considerations on mercury management, we present a mercury substitution priority working list, or: An identification of the least essential mercury uses. Our assessment indicates that: Many mercury uses may today be readily eliminated, if politically desired. Global mercury demand may be reduced significantly by substitution of the least essential uses. Applying a prioritized phase-out list may help focusing on the main problems, securing a cost effective phase-out process. We therefore recommend that a prioritised phase-out work list for intentional mercury uses is discussed and developed further in international cooperation, for example in the Open-ended Working Group considering legal and other initiatives on mercury established under the auspices of UNEP. The list could serve as: A valuable tool in mutual communication and discussion of possible global mercury reductions A tool for a step-wise reduction development, if desired politically A part of forming a common vision for global mercury reduction.




Mercury is scientifically demonstrated and politically acknowledged as a global pollutant (UNEP, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007; The Madison Declaration on Mercury Pollution, 2007). Elemental Hg is unique when compared to other trace metals found in the atmosphere, in that it is predominantly in the gaseous elemental form (Slemr et al. , 1985; Schroeder and Munthe, 1998), where other metals, e. g. lead, are primarily spread in the atmosphere with aerosols. The characteristics of gaseous metallic Hg, such as low aqueous solubility, mean that it has relatively low reactivity and is quite stable. Therefore, gaseous elemental mercury has a long atmospheric residence time, enabling global transport. Its vapour pressure and biological processes allows it to be deposited and reemitted from land, vegetation and aquatic surfaces. All of these factors contribute to its spreading throughout the globe to areas where there are very little natural or local man-made Hg releases. Hg accumulation in aquatic food resources deserve special attention, considering that the growing world population needs increasing food supplies and cannot risk that such a nutritious food resource as fish and other sea and fresh water food turns unsuitable for human consumption due to anthropogenic emissions of Hg. In virtually all regions of the world – including such remote areas as the Arctic – fish and other aquatic foods with mercury concentrations too high for frequent human consumption have been found (UNEP, 2002). For the general population, the most critical toxic effect from mercury is damage to the central nervous system, notably the developing brain of the foetus (UNEP, 2002). In many countries women of childbearing age and small children are advised to avoid eating certain fish species often – or not at all – due to mercury contamination (NMR, 2007).


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