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Mercury as a global pollutant

mercury beads

15 Aug 2013

The 2013 International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant, held in Edinburgh from 27 July - 2 Aug 2013, coincided with the launch of the United Nations Environment Programme Global Legally Binding Treaty on Mercury. It was therefore perfectly timed to celebrate the official launch of the treaty and to discuss how to put it into practice. This year's theme was 'Science informing global policy'

The ICMGP events have been held periodically for over 18 years and have become the pre-eminent international forums for formal presentation and discussion of scientific advances concerning environmental mercury. The 2013 conference promoted much discussion on some of the questions that are likely to arise in 2013 and beyond:

  • What form does the new UNEP Legally Binding Treaty take and what does it mean in practice?
  • How do we curb current mercury supply and demand?
  • How do we reduce emissions from human activities?
  • What evaluation tools do we need and is our current 'tool-kit' of monitoring and modelling techniques up to the job?
  • What health and social effects has mercury had and how will this change in the future?
  • How do we deal with remediation of contaminated sites and ecosystems?
  • What is needed in terms of technologies and psychologies of social change?
  • What synergies are there with existing, impending and potential global treaties, issues and scenarios? How do we raise our concern and action on mercury 'from local to global'?

The 2013 event attracted some 950 delegates from 65 different countries. There were seven parallel streams of oral presentations with daily poster sessions. There were over 1,000 presentations and posters, and 48 trade stands.

The free Public Open Day on the afternoon of Sun 28 July was a particular success. The 18 stands and demonstrations included on-site measurement of mercury vapour from visitors' dental fillings (PSA Analytical) with the adjacent stand measuring mercury in visitors' hair. (Minimata Institute from Japan). This relates to the methylmercury body burden. Children could dress up as volcanologists (Oxford University) in a heat-resistant suit and be photographed.

The WSF stand was manned by Kevin Prior and a RSC stand manned by Sandy Gray in Scottish attire. The molecular modelling activities Sandy had to offer was a clear winner with the many children present. Rachel Purser-Lowman manned the RSC stand at the main five-day event and did an excellent job promoting RSC; WSF and especially RSC Books.

I manned the SCI stand and presented a poster on the use of the many mercury drugs liberally prescribed (many in mega quantities over long periods) by the medical profession to their patients in the period 1950 to around 1970, including a 1973 review of mercury toxicity entitled Tempest in a teapot.

The stands at the associated were mostly associated with mercury analysis/sampling equipment as well as various research organisations: Dow; Nalco (dry scrubber materials); RSC; SEPA and two contract laboratory groups (Intertek and SAL).

Many of the attendees were university researchers, almost all of whom had submitted highly specialised and technical presentations or posters.

Two of these research groups (The Faroe Islands and the Seychelles' Child Development Projects) had been set up over 20 years ago to investigate the long-term health of primarily fish-eating communities.

There is some intense rivalry between the two groups. The Faroe Islands Project maintains that the methyl mercury in fish is causing brain damage in children with the main protagonist actively promoting his book Only one chance at the event. See also the video coverage on Youtube.

The Seychelles' Child Development Project, which is changing its name to reflect that many of its participants are no longer children, appears to have found little negative effects with the fish diet in the Seychelles with the fish diet protecting the children against the additional mercury ingested risk.

Some presentations in the seven parallel streams were highly specialised, eg 'Suppression of mercury methylation by hypolimnetic liquid calcium nitrate amendment: Results from a field demonstration project in the State of Minnesota, USA' and 'A synthesis of mercury studies in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 1998 - 2008: Scientific support towards a landscape-level management plan for controlling mercury exposure'.

The two-hour open Panel Session on Health Impacts from Mercury: Emerging Science and Unanswered Questions, which I co-chaired, went really well. It proved to be a very civilised discussion session, even though there was much disagreement expressed.

The 'Industry Award' was presented to Prof Peter Stockwell of PSA Analytical at the end of the event.

An optional evening visit to Edinburgh Castle with freedom to explore the numerous exhibits and period-dressed staff was most enjoyable. Overall, in my opinion it was a very successful event and I now know considerably more about global mercury pollution and potential adverse effects on human health. I did my best to try and promote both the SCI and RSC-WSF to relevant delegates.

It also ran with very few problems or presentation issues, and the organisers are to be congratulated.

K. Clive Thompson

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