Communities in developing countries are facing increasing health and environmental risks linked to exposure to mercury, according to new studies by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The Global Mercury Assessment (GMA) 2013 report said parts of Africa, Asia and South America could see increasing emissions of mercury into the environment, due mainly to the use of the toxic element in small-scale gold mining, and through the burning of coal for electricity generation.
The GMA 2013 report which was made available to the Ghana News Agency on Thursday indicated that emissions of the toxic metal from artisanal gold mining have doubled since 2005.
It said due to rapid industrialisation, Asia is the largest regional emitter of mercury and accounts for just under half of all global releases.
The UNEP study assesses for the first time at a global level releases of mercury into rivers and lakes.
The GMA report reiterated that much human exposure to mercury is through the consumption of contaminated fish, making aquatic environments the critical link to human health.
The report said in the past 100 years, man-made emissions have caused the amount of mercury in the top 100 metres of the world’s oceans to double.
It held that concentrations in deeper waters have increased by up to 25 per cent and an estimated 260 tonnes of mercury, previously held in soils are being released into rivers and lakes.
The study, which provides a comprehensive breakdown of mercury emissions by region and economic sector, also highlights significant releases into the environment linked to contaminated sites and deforestation.
The UNEP studies said this reinforces the need for swift action by governments, industry and civil society to strengthen efforts to reduce mercury emissions and releases.
The report said delays in action, would lead to slower recovery of ecosystems and a greater legacy of pollution.
Rising levels of mercury present in the Arctic are also highlighted in the report.
It said an estimated 200 tonnes of mercury are deposited in the Arctic each year, generally far from where it originated; however, studies have shown a 10-fold increase in levels of mercury in certain Arctic wildlife species in the past 150 years, due mainly to human activity.
Along with a parallel UNEP publication Mercury; Time to Act, the new assessment will be formally presented at the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC5), to be held in Geneva in January 3- January 18.
Governments attending the major conference are aiming to conclude discussions on a global legally binding treaty to minimise risks to people and the environment from exposure to mercury.
This would reduce cases of neurological and behavioural disorders, and other health problems linked to mercury, as well as the contamination of soils and rivers caused by man-made emissions of the metal.
Governments gave the green light to negotiations towards a global treaty back in 2009 at the UNEP Governing Council held in Nairobi, Kenya.