METHYLMERCURY LEVELS GROWING IN THE PACIFIC?

In a report produced jointly by IPEN and Biodiversity Research Institute entitled Global Mercury Hotspots, alarming levels of mercury were found in humans in 14 countries. “Fish and human hair from around the world regularly exceeded health advisory levels,” said Dr. David Evers, Executive Director at the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI). “The results demonstrate the need for a mercury treaty that mandates true reductions of mercury emissions not just to air, but also to land and water as well.”

 

As a Cook Islands public-interest NGO, ISACI took part in this IPEN-BRI project that analyzed mercury in hair and fish samples from 14 countries. Far from industrial sources and with little economic activity other than fishing and aquaculture for black pearls, the Cook Islands hair samples showed comparatively high levels of mercury. The most likely explanation for this result is that mercury is easily transported by wind and sea to remote, pristine environments where it enters the food chain.

 

“I am glad that a Pacific Islands country participated in this project,” said Lowell Alik, General Manager of the Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority at a presentation to governments on 16th January 2013. “But I also wonder what the levels in Marshall Islands might be, if we took part in a similar study. I have seen the film about the terrible health impacts of mercury contamination on the Minamata community in Japan, and I think our people would want to know.”

 

The dangers of mercury poisoning have been known for centuries. Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. Mercury can also be passed from a mother to her developing foetus and this can result in brain damage, reduced intelligence and mental retardation. Unless there is a meaningful effort to curb these sources, global mercury pollution looks likely to increase.

 

Some countries at the negotiations have pushed to eliminate obligations to reduce or eliminate mercury releases to land and water. Without such big reductions, global levels of methyl mercury (the organic form of mercury that pollutes fish and sea food) will increase. This is particularly important for Small Island states (SIDS) who main source of protein is fish.

 

Reversal of marine pollution has been successful in regions like the Baltic Sea, and Chesapeake Bay. “Clean-up of mercury in the Pacific Ocean would need large reductions by global emitters of their mercury emissions to air and releases to water and land,” said Imogen Ingram from ISACI. “Only then will contamination of our migratory fish be reduced.  SIDS may find that the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, in particular its London Protocol dealing with marine pollution, may be the long-term solution that the Mercury Convention has not provided.”

 

Given that many foreign countries are fishing under licence in the Pacific, and exporting large volumes of fish to the global market, it is likely that consumers in the big countries of the world would also like to know.

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Imogen Ingram

Island Sustainability Alliance CIS Inc. (“ISACI”)

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