Rise of the Global South Highlights Minamata Convention on Mercury COP5

In 2013, a new treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was adopted by a global community under the auspices of UNEP. The Convention is named after Minamata Bay in Japan to remember the lessons of the tragic health damage by industrial mercury pollution in the 1950s and 1960s. The aim of the treaty is to protect the environment and the human health from anthropogenic emissions and releases of the toxic heavy metal. It regulates the entire life cycle of mercury – its supply, trade, use, emissions, releases, storage, and the management of waste and contaminated sites.
  • Opinion by Charlie Brown (washington)
  • Inter Press Service
  • The writer is President, World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry

At the Fifth Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention (“COP5”), concluding in Geneva on 3 November, countries debated the African Amalgam Amendment, calling for the phase out of amalgam. The Africa region, led by Roger Baro, the Environment Minister of Burkina Faso, strategically built alliances beforehand, starting with the crucial 27-nation European Union.

Civil society was inspired watching one delegate after another rising to support the phase out of mercury in dentistry: from West Asia (Saudi Arabia, Jordan) to South Asia (Pakistan) and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Vietnam), from Oceania (Australia, Tuvalu) to South America (Argentina) and non-E.U. Europe (Norway, Switzerland).

But several dissenters, while agreeing action is needed, were not yet amenable to a phase out date. Emerging therefore was the worldwide consensus to take three giant leaps toward mercury-free dentistry:

  • For the first time, the treaty recognizes that countries can phase out amalgam – and more and more have already succeeded!
  • The nations amended the treaty to add a new requirement: those countries that have “not yet phased out dental amalgam” must submit an action plan or a report on their progress.
  • Most exciting of all, the nations inserted into the treaty, in brackets, a phase-out date for amalgam – an action that is not legally binding but which automatically agendizes a debate and a vote, at COP6 in 2025, on whether and when to phase out amalgam.

The Africa Region led the movement to end the use of two other mercury products, gaining phase-out dates in the Minamata Convention for mercury in skin cream (UN Convention Agrees to Phase Mercury Out of Cosmetics by 2025 - Zero Mercury) and for all fluorescent light bulbs (https://www.clasp.ngo/updates/cop5-decision/).

Africans, both government and civil society, are grimly determined to protect its people from mercury exposure and not to let its continent be made a dumping ground for toxic products, including amalgam.

In the national capitals, the march to mercury-free dentistry continues unabated. In October, Gabon decided amalgam is no longer allowed – and huge credit here goes to Serge Molly of Libreville, a long-time leader at the Minamata Convention.

This month the European Parliament and the Council of Europe debate when—not if—to phase out amalgam in all 27 member states (a dozen already have). Other Parties are ending amalgam piecemeal . . . banning its use in children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers . . . or in the military . . . or in government programs.

No consumer or parent these days wants amalgam; no one with the power to choose accepts a mercury implant in the mouth. Where choice reigns—the private sector—amalgam use is ending.

Well-ensconced inside government bureaucracies, the mercury lobby imposes amalgam outrageously on powerless consumers—the indigenous, the poor, the racial minorities, the immigrants, the institutionalized, the privates in the army and the seamen in the navy.

Unchecked by their superiors, the condemnable chief dental officers of the U.S. and Canada (1) ignore their legal duty to comply with the Minamata Convention Children’s Amendment, (2) violate their Hippocratic Oath daily by outright defiance of the recommendations against use by both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and (3) maintain mercury-toxic workplaces for dental workers while they sit protected from mercury exposure in their plush government bureaus.

The great Minamata Convention had its genesis from studies showing mercury in the Arctic, drifting there via air or waterways, was harming indigenous peoples. In stark defiance of the spirit of Minamata, Health Canada dentists fly planeloads of mercury fillings daily into the Arctic and sub-Arctic, leaving the dental mercury behind to pollute the Tribal Lands.

Equally ignominiously, the U.S. Indian Health Service has ignored for seven years the resolution from the National Congress of American Indians to cease amalgam use on Tribal Lands.

To the profound disappointment of the environmental community, Canada’s Environment & Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault MP—despite his superb résumé fighting toxins while an NGO leader—does nothing to reduce amalgam use by Health Canada, even though his ministry is the lead at Minamata.

It is time for Minister Guilbault to condemn this wholesale usage of mercury fillings that is poisoning tribal lands. Inaction by ECC Canada portends another Grassy Narrows scandal in the making.

Rather than apply President Biden’s splendid priority of environmental justice to the U.S. Public Health Service, Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine opts for physician-to-dentist professional courtesy—giving carte blanche to the pro-mercury chief dental officers to pollute Tribal lands, prisons, Army forts, Navy bases, and minority-dominated inner cities.

By the stroke of a pen, the 4-star Admiral could order the dentists under her command at the Public Health Service to end amalgam use—and the World Alliance for Mercury-Free Dentistry calls on her to do so now.

Dentists still implanting this colonial-era primitive device do so not because they need to; but because they want to. Inaction in Ottawa and Washington must end; these two federal governments are the major reason that North American oral health care remains two-tiered: choice for the middle class and mercury for the powerless.

IPS UN Bureau

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