The creeping mercury menace - Solution is here!

16 Aug 2017

 Illegal mining activities in Ghana are known for the use of mercury for the amalgamation of gold. (Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency, Ghana)

By Joel Ayim Darkwah, Assistant Programme Officer (Sustainable Development)

What is the Minamata Convention

Though useful in many areas including mining and the health sector, mercury can have adverse effect on both human health and the environment. For instance, in 1956, more than 2,000 people died in Japan due to mercury poisoning, an incidence which later became known as the Minamata Disease. Currently, an increasing number of people are being affected with different diseases through mercury poisoning.

It is with this background that the Minamata Convention was agreed by more than 120 countries in October 2013, to increase global efforts to significantly reduce and eliminate mercury releases in the atmosphere, land and water bodies. This convention after being ratified in more than 50 countries comes into force today. It is therefore expected that all parties, including Ghana, initiate policies and programmes that will ensure a significant reduction in mercury use in the country.  Citizens through same, are being sensitized to avoid contacts with mercury substances to reduce and eliminate potential health risks.

How is Ghana affected by this convention?

Mercury use in the Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) sector

The Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) sector is known to be the largest user of mercury globally, emitting 727 tons of mercury annually accounting for about 35% of global air emissions, and releasing about 800 tons of mercury into water bodies.  ASGM activities in Ghana are known for the use of mercury for the amalgamation of gold. In the case of illegal gold mining, which has become a popular but unfortunate phenomenon, research by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) indicates that almost all of the mercury used in such activities are released into land and water bodies. Mercury poisoning due to illegal mining has affected the soil and the quality of drinking water in communities close to river bodies like the Birim, Enu, Pra, Bonsa and Ankobra which have been badly polluted.

Under Article 7 of the Convention, Ghana is required to develop a National Action Plan, which includes clear national objectives and targets for “reducing and where feasible, eliminate” the use of mercury in ASGM. Ghana will be expected to report every three years on results achieved through the implementation of the plan.

Cement production

Mercury use in manufacturing in Ghana is mainly in cement production. Mercury is introduced to the process via raw materials or fuels, in varied concentrations. Mercury contents are found in the raw materials such as natural and artificial gypsum, earth crust, limestone, lime marl, chalk, clay, sand and iron ore. As the Convention comes into force, cement manufacturers are expected to limit the level of metals in materials to eliminate the emission of mercury through their manufacturing processes.

Waste incineration

Waste incineration contributes to releases of mercury into the atmosphere during the combustion process. In Ghana, it is a common practice to incinerate municipal waste and hazardous waste generated through health-related practices. As the Convention comes into force, Ghana is expected to promote the use of non-incineration technologies in the management of waste. Incineration under high temperature (800 degrees and above) is also acceptable.

Mercury added products

The Ghanaian market is flooded with a wide range of products containing mercury, such as barometers, hygrometers, manometers, batteries, linear and compact fluorescent lamps, skin lightening soaps and creams, switches and relays, pesticides, biocides and topical antiseptics. In the health sector, dental amalgam, thermometers and sphygmomanometers are also known for their mercury contents. As the Convention comes into force, Ghana is required to take steps to ensure that these mercury-added products are replaced with non-mercury containing alternatives by 2020. Similarly, cosmetics, including skin lightening soaps and creams, pesticides, biocides and topical antiseptics with mercury contents also have a phase-out deadline of 2020. For dental amalgam, a gradual reduction is being promoted through prevention and the use of improved alternative materials. Failure to reduce demand could lead to an outright ban.

Phase-out deadlines for these mercury-added products however could change if before today, the Government requested for an exemption, thereby extending the deadlines for phase-out by 5 years.

How is the United Nations supporting Ghana?  

· UNDP and UNITAR are supporting the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) to undertake a Mercury assessment for Ghana. The Project is conducting a nationwide inventory of mercury trade and use in the country, to develop a National Mercury Profile. This would inform Ghana’s priority setting in mercury reduction initiatives. The project is also conducting a review of national legislative frameworks on mercury to identify gaps and make policy recommendations to support the implementation of the Convention.

· UNDP is supporting the Ministry of Health and Ghana Health Service through the Medical Waste Project to reduce mercury use in the health sector. The project so far has supported the development of a Healthcare Waste Management Policy, Guideline and Standard Operating Procedures to improve waste management in the health sector. Additionally, the Koforidua Regional Hospital, the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, the Cape Coast Teaching Hospital, the Winneba Trauma Hospital and the Tegbi Health Centre are being prepared to receive non-mercury containing thermometers and sphygmomanometers to reduce mercury use.  Three of these health facilities will further receive non-incineration equipment to manage their healthcare waste. This new equipment will replace existing low-temperature incinerators which release harmful substances like dioxins and furans in the atmosphere.

· The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is also supporting EPA to develop Ghana’s Action Plan for mercury phase-out in the Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining sector.

As the global mercury phase-out journey begins today, policy makers and citizens are being called to support the implementation of this timely Convention by taking responsible actions that to reduce or eliminate mercury releases into the environment. The successful implementation of this Convention will also contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals 3 (good health and well-being), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 14 (life below water) and 15 (life on land).

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