Making Mercury History? Greenland Chooses to Opt Out of Historic UN Convention

Preparation of a ringed seal. Large marine mammals like the seal accumulate mercury pollution in the ocean, passing the pollution on to humans once it is consumed. (Photo Credit: Ansgar Walk)
This month, the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury came into effect, requiring governments to protect their citizens against the harmful effects of mercury. One government – Greenland – was conspicuously absent.

This month, the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury came into effect, requiring governments to protect their citizens against the harmful effects of mercury. One government – Greenland – was conspicuously absent.

The passage into effect of the UN Minamata Convention on Mercury on August 16 marks the first ever global agreement for the reduction of mercury and the first global treaty on environment and health to be adopted for nearly a decade. The Convention, Minamata, takes its name from the most severe mercury poisoning disaster in history, when industrial wastewaters were dumped into a Bay in Japan from 1932 until 1968, poisoning over 60,000 people.

The Convention legally binds countries to ban new mercury mines, phase out existing ones, and regulate the use of mercury in gold-mining, manufacturing processes, and the production of everyday items such as cosmetics, light bulbs, batteries, and teeth fillings. It also seeks to limit the side-effects from other industrial processes like coal-fired power stations, waste incineration, and cement clinker production and addresses the interim storage of mercury, its waste, and already contaminated sites.

The Minamata Convention has been signed by 128 countries, 74 of which have already ratified it at the time of this article. But in spite of the Inuit Circumpolar Council – Greenland’s involvement in the negations of the treaty, the Naalakkersuisut (the Government of Greenland) has decided not to ratify the Convention.

The Devastating Effects of a Southern Pollutant

"Together with ICC-Canada, ICC-Greenland has been involved from the beginning in the UN mercury negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Minamata Convention on mercury," Parnuna Egede explained to High North News.

Egede is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Inuit Circumpolar Council – Greenland, the Danish Center for Environmental Assessment, and the University of Greenland.

"During those years, ICC has stressed the importance of creating a strong, legally binding agreement that will coordinate the global efforts to reduce human-made emissions of mercury to air and water. It has been of special importance to ICC since Inuit are disproportionately exposed to mercury pollution through their traditional diet even though there are no major sources of mercury pollution within the Arctic itself."

Mercury, a toxic heavy metal that affects the nervous system, travels from small-scale gold mining, coal-fired power plants, and cement production further south into Arctic waters through atmospheric and ocean systems. Once in the Arctic, mercury accumulates in animals used for subsistence food sources like fish, seals, toothed whales, and polar bears, and bio-accumulates through the food chain. Top predators, including humans, amass high concentrations of the dangerous metal in their bodies.

"The Arctic is a sink for pollutants," explains Egede, "and Arctic communities are already being exposed to e.g. POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and other chemicals of emerging concern, increasing the risk of negative cocktail effects on the health of Arctic peoples."

Pathways of mercury into the Arctic region. (Credit: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)
Pathways of mercury into the Arctic region. (Credit: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

This high concentration of mercury can have devastating health impacts. "Studies have shown that e.g. Inuit women and children in especially Greenland, Nunavut and Nunavik have high levels of mercury in their blood, higher than global average and above health guidelines," according to Egede. "Mercury affects the nervous system and can, amongst others, cause learning and memory difficulties, attention deficits as well as reduced intelligence, and this is exactly what has been shown in e.g. studies of Inuit children in Nunavut with life conditions not that different from Inuit in Greenland."

In extreme causes, mercury poisoning can result in fetus deformities, mental illness, paralysis, and coma.

A House Divided: Different Sides of the Mercury Debate in Greenland

The disproportionate effects mercury pollution has on Arctic populations make Greenland’s absence in the Convention all the more puzzling.

"Inuit have been working hard to make the rest of the world understand how global mercury pollution can disproportionately affect populations in areas of the world that are not causing the pollution in the first place," Egede reflects on the ICC’s work.

"It would only make sense for Inuit to support the global efforts to reduce mercury pollution by ratifying the Minamata Convention on mercury and continue pushing for strong, effective reductions."

Inuit communities in Alaska and the Arctic regions of Canada are already covered though the ratifications of USA and Canada, so only Inuit in Greenland are lacking behind. It is ICC-Greenland’s hope that Naalakkersuisut will ratify the convention as soon as practically possible.

The Naalakkersuisut blames a lack of resources for its lack of direct involvement in the UN mercury negotiations and the Danish ratification process. Egede cites Greenland’s challenges of creating a strong economy, a brain drain to other countries, and an aging population as reasons why the Naalakkersuisut may prioritize other actions over the passage of the Minamata Convention. But even this Egede finds troubling. "Naalakkersuisut has emphasized the importance of more, higher and better education as a key element in the future development of Greenland and to create a sustainable society," she explains.

"The abilities of Greenlandic children and youth to learn and get an education can be stressed further by the effects of mercury contamination. It is therefore in Naalakkersuisut’s interest that the pollution is reduced worldwide."

Of course, ratifying the Convention would be more of a symbolic gesture, as there are no major sources of mercury pollution in Greenland. "Nevertheless," Egede regrets, "since the Convention is of such great importance for the health and well-being of Inuit that the symbolic value of supporting these global efforts in reducing mercury pollution would only make sense. Imposing restrictions on the consumption of traditional diet are not acceptable as a long-lasting solution, so only global efforts to reduce mercury pollution will work in the long term."

Even if Greenland is not a Party to the Convention as it takes force this month, Egede is optimistic that the Naalakkersuisut will come around. "ICC-Greenland is hopeful that Naalakkersuisut will understand the importance of the convention and ratify it as soon as practically possible."

For more background on the Minamata Convention: