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Global mercury ban to hit electronics, plastics, power prices

Minamata Convention will mean mercury runs away by 2020

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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has signed off on the Minamata Convention, a new global agreement that will ban mercury from most uses by 2020.

UNEP's Mercury: Time to Act book says the substance “damages the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, eyes, gums and skin” and can result in “Neurological and behavioural disorders … with symptoms including tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches, and cognitive and motor dysfunction.”

Mercury mostly enters the human body through food, as it is passed up the food chain to organisms like large fish people enjoy eating.

The Convention's name was chosen for the Japanese city of Minamata, where industrial pollutants led to mercury concentrating in local shellfish. Thousands experienced Mercury poisoning as a result, with over 1,000 deaths.

The Convention will impact Reg readers in many ways. Some fluorescent lamps rely on the element, as do light switches. Button cells are another common application. If PCs and servers still need CMOS batteries by 2020, the button cells you buy will need to be manufactured without mercury (some jurisdictions already have this ban in place, given button cells' prevalence in toys and the likelihood kids can swallow them).

Mercury-rich devices like thermometers and blood pressure meters will have to be replaced. And you can forget about mercury switches in your after-hours electronics projects (and yes, we do know there are better alternatives these days).

PVC is also in trouble, as the zero mercury working group says much Chinese PVC relies on a mercury-intensive manufacturing process. Furniture, iPod covers, and even a mouse use PVC, as do a great many laptop bags and other tech accessories.

Large industrial facilities like coal-fuelled power plants, cement production and metal production factories are among the world's larger sources of mercury and will be regulated to reduce their output. The UNPE book says these industrial sources are worrisome as the mercury they emit is airborne. Much of these mercury emissions reach the arctic, where they find their way into the food chain. As many species conduct seasonal arctic migration, airborne mercury can therefore find its way back around the world to threaten populations dependent on migratory creatures.

Debate about controlling carbon dioxide emissions has nearly always seen such industries point out that compliance costs of a lower-carbon regime will mean higher costs for consumers. The same can surely be expected of mercury abatement measures, which could mean more pressure on data centre power bills. ®

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