Mercury is an element which is naturally present in our environment. It is also known as quicksilver. It is a heavy, silvery-white metal which is liquid at room temperature and evaporates easily. Mercury is usually found in nature in the form of cinnabar, used in the past as a red pigment. Cinnabar, a natural form of mercury, can be found in metals, such as lead and zinc, and in small amounts in a wide range of rocks including coal and limestone. The other source of mercury comes from human activities. About half of the global anthropogenic mercury emissions come from the burning of coal, metals production and the production of cement. [1] About 2,600 tons are emitted from anthropogenic sources. [2]

Mercury mostly resonates to us, humans, through its organic compound ‘methylmercury’ (MeHg), which is only found is aquatic habitats. Around 1914, methylmercury became commercially important as a crop fungicide and its worldwide use has lead to several food poisoning incidents. [3] However, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that methylmercury became recognized as a well-known thread, after years of the chemical company Chisso discharging it into Minamata Bay, Japan. [3] Over 17, 000 people were certified as disease victims. Symptoms can range from ataxia, muscle weakness and damage to hearing and speech, to insanity, paralysis and death.

What is new about mercury?

In January 2013, more than 140 countries have adopted the first global, legally binding treaty, known as the Minamata Convention on Mercury, to prevent the release of anthropogenic mercury. Later on, in October 2013, Minamata will be in the news again to ratify the treaty.

Why is mercury hazardous?

Mercury is tasteless and odorless, so when it does get into the environment it’s not easy to spot. And as the only metal on Earth that can be found in a liquid form at room temperature, mercury is often used in barometers, thermometers and in any household items like cosmetics, antiseptics and skin lightening creams. It can also be combined with other metals to create special alloys called amalgams, which can be silver or gold. [5]

Moreover, mercury poisoning is not a local issue. Most of the world’s estimated 600,000 tonnes of mercury deposits are found in a handful of countries, including China, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine. [6] Of course, the US is not excluded. [5]

The biggest anthropogenic sources of mercury are coal fired power plants, and artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), together emitting a minimum of 1000 tonnes per year.

What about the treaty?

Unfortunately, the treaty only provides soft measures like awareness raising, advocacy, and the provision of information, so as to encourage reductions of anthropogenic mercury emissions. Although the treaty is ‘legally binding’, it encourages governments to set out strategic reduction schemes on the facility in Minamata rather than on a national basis

On top of this, the treaty does not require identification or remediation of contaminated sites, does not require polluters to pay for health damages or environmental clean-up, and does not provide protection from similar disasters occurring anywhere in the world. In fact, the treaty is not expected to reduce global levels of mercury in fish and seafood at all. [7]

A look into the future

With global warming at 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 1,199 new coal-fired plants are being proposed globally. [8] It seems our addiction to fossil fuels is not going to end.

Mercury emissions are not expected to fall until the 2020s, while the treaty itself is expected to increase anthropogenic emissions.

The rising global concern is methylmercury poisoning growing in combination with ongoing climate change and water scarcity – in particular with regard to coal fired power stations, with their high CO2 emissions and significant use of water for cooling.

Talking about clean coal (or clean coal technology)?  In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy report honestly said: “There is no point in pretending that coal is what it is not, nor that it is not what it is. Coal is naturally endowed with the elements and minerals of the living organisms that define its primordial origins, and that means the carbon for which it is valued. But, to some degree, it also means sulfur, and nitrogen, and incombustible impurities. It is an incontrovertible fact that the uncontrolled burning of coal will release into the environment carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter, and ash.

It is the business of the Clean Coal Technology Program to develop the means of burning this coal with attendant minimal emissions of these undesirable pollutants; we know that there can never be none. So, if not literally “clean” coal, then certainly we mean “cleaner” coal, and it is in this sense that the Program uses the shorthand term, Clean Coal Technology”. [9]

According to Rob Dietz, regular contributor at The Daly News, “clean coal means that miners have struck it rich — that they’ve found a seam of coal that, when burned, produces only a lemony fresh, green vapor”. [10]

The hard work lies in changing the current state of our economy. We need to be confronting the root causes of our environmental problems, which are population growth and a false economic paradigm triggered by capitalism, rather than simply the symptoms alone. As Albert Bartlett, the physicist and activist, has said: “Smart growth destroys the environment. Dumb growth destroys the environment. The only difference is that smart growth does it with good taste. It’s like booking passage on the Titanic. Whether you go first-class or steerage, the result is the same.”

[1] UNEP, United Nations Environment Programme, (2013).

[2] Honda, S., Hylander, L., & Sakamoto, M. (2006). Recent advances in evaluation of health effects on mercury with special reference to methylmercury: A minireview. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 11 (4), 171-176

[3] Barrett, J. (August, 2010). An Uneven Path Forward: The History of Methylmercury Toxicity Research.National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Environmental Health perspective, 118(8): A352

[4] Schlein, L. (19 January, 2013). More Than 140 Nations Approve Global Treaty to Cut Mercury. Voice of America:

[5] Griesbauer, L. (February, 2007). Methylmercury contamination in fish and shellfish. CSA Discovery Guides:

[6] USGS (2012). Mineral Commodity Summary. United States Geological Service. Available from

[7] Kennedy, R., and Yaggi, M.(10 January, 2013). Mercury poisoning is a growing global menace we have to address. The Guardian:

[8] Yang, A., and Cui, Y. (November, 2012). Global Coal Risk Assessment: Data Analysis and Market Research. World Resources Institute:

[9] Miller, L. (n.d.). Clean coal technologies, clean air legislation and national energy strategy. U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Fossil Fuel Energy (FE-22). Retrieved from

[10] Moronic Oxymorons in the Age of Climate Change. Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (casse). The Daly News. Retrieved from