Why mercury still poses important threats to human health
In July, a 47-year-old woman showed up at the emergency department of her local hospital in Sacramento, California. Her speech was slurred, she couldn’t walk, and she was unable to feel her hands or face. The woman soon fell into a coma, where she remained for several weeks.
The cause of the woman’s desperate condition, health officials soon discovered, was a skin-lightening ingredient—mercury—that had been illegally mixed into her pot of face cream.
“Mercury poisoning has dangerous and sometimes irreversible effects, and while unborn babies are most vulnerable, anyone can suffer,” said Claudia ten Have, Senior Policy Coordination Officer at the Minamata Convention Secretariat. As the case of the Sacramento woman makes clear, the toxic heavy metal can pose serious health threats in developing as well as developed countries.
Indeed, everyone on the planet is exposed to mercury at some level—whether through the food we eat, the air we breathe, or the cosmetics that we use. And while there are a number of measures that individuals, companies and governments can take to guard against mercury poisoning, the toxic heavy metal will continue to endanger human and environmental health until we manage to comprehensively address mercury throughout its life cycle.
Achieving that goal is the principal aim of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a multilateral environmental agreement that took effect in August 2017. To date, 114 countries have ratified the convention, the world’s youngest environmental treaty. The parties to convention will gather in Geneva for their third Conference of the Parties from 25 to 29 November. The health impacts of mercury are one of the important items on the meeting’s agenda.
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