Time to pat yourself on the back, Duluth

Duluthians, while not ones to brag, might quietly pat themselves on the back and take a minute to celebrate the leadership role the city played in building the foundation for the UN Minamata Convention, ratified today.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. Although signed in October 2013, the convention required at least 50 countries for ratification. The EU and seven of its member states — Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania and Sweden — deposited their instruments of ratification at the UN Headquarters in New York, bringing to 52 the current number of future parties.

As a result, on Aug. 16, the convention, which aims at protecting human health and the environment from human-made emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds, will become legally binding for all its parties.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can harm the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. It is used throughout health care in a variety of products, including thermometers, sphygmomanometers, dental amalgam, laboratory chemicals, preservatives such as thimerosal, cleaning agents and various electronic devices such as fluorescent lamps and computer equipment.

Beyond Minnesota’s borders, Duluth’s leadership role in the global phase-out is well understood. From 1995-97 the Western Lake Superior Sanitary Districts Zero Mercury Discharge Project was nationally recognized for its education on mercury’s human health impacts and pollution prevention strategies.

Through the leadership of Duluth’s Institute for a Sustainable Future and local healthcare community, on March 6, 2000, the city of Duluth adopted the nation’s, and likely the globe’s, first-ever ban on the sale of mercury fever and basal thermometers.

In 2002, Duluth again became a leader by phasing out mercury products in schools, blood pressure devices and other mercury containing medical equipment and thermostats. “Mercury pollution is a public health concern,” said then Duluth council president Donny Ness. “This is one step toward protecting our citizens.”

Newspaper articles read, “Duluth as Trendsetter: Will Its Mercury Ban Catch On?” ISF coordinated this work nationally for the Health Care Without Harm Campaign and similar phase-out’s were enacted in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and other major cities. This work spread to Mexico City, Delhi, Buenos Aires and more with the support and leadership of the healthcare community.

The Minamata Convention draws attention to a global and ubiquitous metal that, while naturally occurring, has broad uses in everyday objects and is released to the atmosphere, soil and water from a variety of sources. Controlling the man-made releases of mercury throughout its lifecycle has been a key factor in shaping the obligations under the convention.

Major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, the phase out and phase down of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions to air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold mining. The convention also addresses interim storage of mercury and its disposal once it becomes waste, sites contaminated by mercury as well as health issues. Coal-fired power plants remain the leading source of mercury to the environment.

While ratification of the Minamata Convention was a herculean global effort involving organizations and governments across the globe, Duluth helped set a global example of how cities can lead by understanding  “Being well Together,” a linkage of social, environmental, economic and individual health. What can we do next?

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