Minamata Convention on Mercury

Background

Mercury is a heavy metal that is widespread and persistent in the environment. It is a naturally occurring element and can be released into the air and water. Mercury exposure can affect foetal neurological development, and has been linked to lowered fertility, brain and nerve damage, and heart disease in adults who have high levels of mercury in their blood. In liquid form mercury readily vaporises and is released into the air, where it is transported and deposited globally, remaining in the atmosphere for up to a year. It can bioaccumulate in, and biomagnify up the food chain, especially in the aquatic food chain where it constitutes a major threat to global food security. Even at low concentrations, mercury poses a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment.

In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) undertook a global assessment of mercury and its compounds. This included the gathering of information on the chemistry and health effects, sources, long-range transport and prevention and control technologies relating to mercury. Through this assessment it was determined that there was sufficient evidence of significant adverse global environmental impacts from mercury and its compounds to warrant further action.

In 2009, the UNEP Governing Council agreed that a global treaty on mercury would be a necessary step to reduce the amount of harmful mercury in the environment. Australia was actively engaged in the negotiation process. The negotiations were finalised in January 2013. The treaty was named the Minamata Convention on Mercury after the town of Minamata, Japan, famous for the widespread poisoning of thousands of people by mercury in the mid-20th century.

The Minamata Convention – A response to global concern

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a multilateral environmental agreement that addresses the adverse effects of mercury through practical actions to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. It requires Parties to address mercury throughout its lifecycle, including its production, its intentional use in products and processes, its unintentional release from industrial activity, though to end-of-life aspects including waste, contaminated sites, and long-term storage.

Australia signed the Minamata Convention on 10 October 2013 and is now considering ratifying the Convention to become a full Party to it. Achieving Party status will allow Australia to participate in important decision-making for the Convention by its Conference of the Parties. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified, with the first conference of the Parties to be held within 12 months of the treaty being enacted.

As ratification of the Convention would legally bind Australia to the Convention’s obligations, a detailed assessment process will be conducted, with the preparation of a National Interest Analysis and a Regulatory Impact Statement. Ratification will then be considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties before a final decision as to whether Australia will ratify the Convention is considered by the Australian Government.

Public Consultation Process – Call for submissions

View submissions

A formal public consultation paper has now been released by the Department of the Environment, seeking views on the impacts on Australia of meeting the obligations of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Comment on this discussion paper is sought from all interested members of the public.

The views received in response to the discussion paper will help the Department of the Environment formulate its advice to the Minister for the Environment regarding the ratification of the Minamata Convention by Australia.

Comments are requested on the discussion paper by no later than 5pm AEST Monday 30 June 2014 and should be submitted electronically to minamataratification@environment.gov.au (preferred option)

or by post:

Chemical Partnerships Section
Department of the Environment
GPO Box 787
CANBERRA ACT 2601

Unless marked as confidential, all submissions will be treated as public documents and posted on the Department’s website. The Department will not post any personal details (such as email addresses) on the website. Please ensure that your submission is attached as a separate document when replying by email.

Further Information