Canada announced on April 7th that it has ratified the Minimata Convention, a global agreement to reduce human generated mercury releases to the environment, both in Canada and abroad.
A news release from the government of Canada states that, “Exposure to mercury is known to cause negative health effects to those who are most vulnerable, particularly fetuses, infants, and young children. In addition, northern peoples are especially vulnerable to mercury as it tends to accumulate naturally in the Arctic, and it affects local food sources like fish and marine mammals.”
Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna said, “Ratifying the Minamata Convention will help us deliver on our commitment to protect the environment, the health of Canadians, and the global population from mercury emissions and releases.”
The Convention is a legally binding treaty negotiated under the United Nations Environment Programme, which will ensure that mercury—a toxic substance—is managed effectively, traded responsibly, and used only where no feasible alternatives exist. The Convention addresses all aspects of the life cycle of mercury, including requiring controls and reductions across a range of products, processes, and industries.
The media release from Environment and Climate Change Canada also states that, “As an Arctic country, Canada will be one of the main beneficiaries of this agreement. While we have reduced our own mercury emissions by over 90 percent in the last 40 years, more must be done to reduce global emissions that have had an impact on Canada and its Arctic ecosystems. Over 95 percent of the mercury deposited in Canada from human activity comes from foreign sources.”
Mercury in Common Products
Ratification of the treaty comes after years of work to reduce or eliminate mercury. This includes conversations with organizations like manufacturers with a direct stake.
Mercury has been used in many products for decades. These products include standard wall-mounted thermostats present in homes and standard flourescent lights and compact fluorescent lights. While work continues to reduce or eliminate mercury in products, older mercury thermostats are still in use in some homes. There is no risk associated with use of these thermostats, however upon disposal, the mercury they contain may end up in the environment. These mercury-switch thermostats should be disposed of as household hazardous waste.
Mercury is still present in fluorescent lights being manufactured today, including compact fluorescent lights, but in greatly reduced quantities over older fluorescents. Flourescent lights can be in service for long periods of time however so older lights containing higher quantities of mercury are common. Fluorescent lights should be disposed of as household hazardous waste.
Globally, coal combustion is the largest source of human generated mercury. Mercury is a natural element, not a chemical, and is present naturally in the environment. Mercury is a natural constituent in coal and upon combustion is released, falling out on land, lakes and rivers as atmospheric deposition. Mercury in the atmosphere may circle the globe several times before falling out. The former coal-fired power plant in Thunder Bay was one of the largest sources of mercury in the Lake Superior basin, however this source is dwarfed by global sources.
Almost every lake in the Lake Superior basin, on both the Canadian and U.S. sides, including Lake Superior itself, has government advisories recommending limits to fish consumption. The most common pathway for ingestion of mercury is through consumption of fish. Atmospheric deposition is the primary contributor to consumption advisories. Information about fish consumption advisories from the Ontario Government can be accessed here.
In parallel with international efforts, substantial and very innovative efforts have also been carried out regionally. For many years, the U.S. – Canada Lake Superior Binational Partnership has worked very hard to reduce mercury inputs to the Lake Superior basin. These programs have been very successful and operated with the support of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and partner state environmental agencies. Programs to collect and recycle older thermostats containing mercury and also flourescent lights have collected thousands of such implements in communities around Lake Superior. Mercury from these collections was recycled and reused, rather than entering the environment through the waste stream.
The Binational Partnership also supported work to remove mercury from schools. Mercury is often present in old implements like thermometers, barometers and pressure gauges and even in jars and containers of the silver liquid metal, sometimes present in back storage rooms adjacent to school chemistry labs. Mercury is a volatile substance which constantly 0ff-gases if not enclosed. Mercury vapor is the most toxic form of mercury, even more toxic than “methyl mercury”, a form of mercury found in the environment and the primary substance contributing to fish consumption advisories.
- Parties to the Minamata Convention include the United States, China, Japan, Switzerland, and Mexico.
- The first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) has been scheduled for September 23, 2017, in Geneva.
- The Minamata Convention on Mercury will enter into force after 50 governments have ratified it.
- Indigenous peoples and northern communities have been working in partnership with scientists and the Government of Canada to better understand this issue, using both scientific and Indigenous knowledge, and they have succeeded in contributing to this historic convention.
- In 2014, Canada published the Products Containing Mercury Regulations, which prohibit the manufacture and import of most mercury-containing products.
- Coal combustion, particularly for the generation of electricity, is the major source of mercury to the Canadian environment.
- Canada became the first major coal user to ban the construction of traditional coal-fired electricity generation units.
- Canada’s greenhouse gas regulations also require existing coal-fired units to close or to install carbon capture and storage once they reach a defined period of operating life (generally 50 years).
- In November 2016, the Government of Canada announced its intent to accelerate the transition from traditional coal power to clean energy by 2030.
- Our greenhouse gas regulations for coal-fired electricity are also expected to result in reductions of mercury emissions from that sector.
- In 2017, Canada published the Export of Substances on the Export Control List Regulations, which prohibit exports of mercury, with limited exceptions, to continue implementing Canada’s domestic mercury strategy.