Heavy combat against heavy metals.

Photo by p. Gordon | flickr.com
Photo by p. Gordon | flickr.com

Mercury has been a long-time poster child for the destructive effects of toxic metals on fragile ecosystems.   As a necessary component in small-scale mining processes for gold extraction, mercury emissions have soared with the increasing market value of gold.  In recognition of its toxic effects on human health and biodiversity, a recent global summit has made progress in banning mercury, and scientific research is stepping closer to feasible heavy metal remediation strategies.

The Minamata Convention in Mercury, held January 19, 2013 in Geneva, produced the first global treaty to ban mercury emissions from industrial practices and artisanal mining.  Additionally, this included the prohibition of mercury in products such as batteries, thermometers, fluorescent lamps and cosmetics.  The agreement was devised in the wake of environmental controversy over mercury usage for extracting gold, when Brazilian scientists expressed concern over mining in the Amazon in August 2012.  Major highlights of the treaty include:

  • 140 countries agreed to reduce mercury emissions
  • Developing nations will be issued US $100 million per year to fund technologies for diminishing mercury content in the environment

Apart from the positive initiatives surrounding this mercury movement, Canada’s representatives held a particularly disappointing viewpoint.  Our nation opposed the assessment of health effects of mercury which was optional to include in the treaty.  An article outlining major health issues caused by the heavy metal was advocated heavily by African and Latin American countries who are large contributors to global mercury emissions. 

My perspective on Canada’s stance is that we should be more rigorous in addressing the health effects of mercury.   Methyl mercury, the most toxic form of the metal, can result in brain damage, psychomotor problems, memory loss, gingivitis and muscular tremors.  Canada’s lack of involvement on addressing these life-changing physiological and neurological effects confirms that our politicians do not recognize the magnitude of mercury contamination crises.

In contrast, researchers from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico have the right idea towards mitigating mercury.  Their studies analyze mercury-resistant bacteria which are capable of ‘mopping’ the metal out of contaminated water.  These specialized bacteria were able to withstand a solution 24 times more concentrated than what was lethal to non-resistant bacteria.  Promising results were found, as these mercury-absorbing microbes extracted 80% of the metal from the solution, forming bacterial clumps which could easily be removed from the water.

Implementing these types of scientific breakthroughs in the field would require the construction of reservoirs to filter mercury-laden water at the site of contamination.  Perhaps this is what could lie ahead for developing nations looking to invest in mercury remediation technologies.  The developing world is getting on board with improving the health of the environment through treaties like the Minamata Convention on Mercury.   As informed, responsible citizens, we must emphasize to Canadian political leaders the importance of managing sources of mercury to reduce its potent environmental influence.

Jeffrey Leon