Japan and Kenya: Working Together to Avoid a Mercury Tragedy

Jul 29, 2019 | GOV, Japan, MariusC, NEWS

Experts on Mercury IDEA testing from Dumpsite – Japan assisted consultants – Ministry of Environment and Forestry Kenya

Scientists and researchers from Japan and Kenya team up to build a sustainable, nationwide mercury monitoring program.

The Ministry of Environment of Japan has collaborated with the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) to help implement the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is a MEA (Multilateral Environmental Agreement) designed to reduce global mercury pollution. The current Japan-led survey became possible thanks to the cooperation of the government of Kenya and participating scientists and researchers.

The World Health Organization currently lists mercury as one of the top ten chemicals that have become a major public health concern. People are commonly exposed to methymercury, which is an organic compound, through the consumption of fish and shellfish. It should be noted however, that methylmercury is different from ethylmercury, which is used to preserve some types of vaccines. Ethylmercury does not pose health risks.

Waste Incineration and Mercury

Speaking from the Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi, Kenya, Mr. Shinichi Honda from the Ministry of Environment of Japan stated that “a large part of anthropogenic mercury is emitted into the atmosphere, which affects global ecosystems.”

Global use of mercury

Global use of mercury | GRID Arendal

Furthermore, he believes that a substantial amount of mercury is released into the environment during the incineration of waste. The incineration of mercury-added products such as fluorescent lamps and discarded electronic parts poses a health risk to residents in surrounding areas.

The objective of the current survey is to help strengthen Kenya’s national capacity to monitor mercury nationally and to evaluate the effectiveness of the Minamata Convention on mercury.

The survey also aims to complete a capacity assessment, explores the current status and issues surrounding the monitoring of mercury in the country, and exhibit the latest mercury monitoring technologies. A report is forthcoming from the joint Japan-Kenya collaboration. The collaboration is made possible by the IDEA Consultants of Japan, PANAFCON Kenya Ltd., UPOPS officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the University of Nbi, and government chemists, among other participants.

Global Effort Needed

According to Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, “The dangerous effects of mercury on the environment and human health are now well documented, and the global community is acting to protect people and planet. Japan has long been an important leader on this issue, and this new contribution only serves to underline their commitment.”

The need for a more global effort for monitoring environmental mercury was affirmed by Tamami Umeda, the Director General for Environment Health Department of the Ministry of the Environment of Japan: “In the implementation of the Minamata Convention, we need effective and timely actions. We also need to bring wider stakeholders on board. With that in mind, Japan has launched the new project to enhance mercury monitoring as a basis for enhanced science-based policy-making in towards global mercury pollution.”

Preventing Another Mercury Tragedy

The name of the Multilateral Environmental Agreement is derived from the Minamata disease, also referred to as the Chisso-Minamata disease. This syndrome is caused by severe mercury poisoning.

The major effects of this condition include ataxia, numbness of the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, a narrow field of vision, and damaged hearing and speech. In its most severe form, Minamata disease can also lead to insanity, paralysis, coma, and death, only within weeks of the onset of its primary symptoms. Congenital Minamata disease can affect fetuses.

The disease was first discovered in Minamata City, Kumamoto prefecture, in Japan. The prevalence of the disease was caused by the release of methylmercury waste by the Chisso Corporation from 1932 to 1968. Bioaccumulation, or the progressive accumulation of mercury in living organisms, occurred in both Minamata Bay and the Shiranue Sea.

For 30 years, continuous animal and human deaths did little to convince the Chisso Corporation to do anything about the subsequent mercury poisoning that arose from its release of methylmercury into the environment. Litigation occurred however, which forced the corporation to pay a total of $86 million in compensation to victims of its irresponsible practices. Over 10,000 victims have received compensation, and 2,265 victims have been officially recognized. 1,784 of these official victims have already died.

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