The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is spearheading several initiatives and partnerships to curb mercury use in the cement industry, the gold mining industry, and skin lightening products. The projects seek to reduce mercury emissions and raise awareness.
One of the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership’s areas of focus is the cement industry, which is responsible for around 11% of global anthropogenic mercury emissions, estimated to be approximately 2,220 tons per year. Mercury is present in the raw materials and/or in the fuel used in the manufacturing process. The expected acceleration of construction activities in emerging markets and the related increase in local cement supplies will contribute to the global mercury emissions. The objective of the Mercury Releases from the Cement Industry Area is to minimize mercury releases to the environment from cement manufacture, as well as supplement existing programmes to ensure reductions are globally significant.
Priority actions in this area include:
- establishing sectoral mercury inventories and baseline scenarios for the industry;
- encouraging the use of most appropriate techniques to reduce or minimize mercury releases into the environment;
- increasing awareness in the cement industry, as well as in government and regulatory bodies, on mercury as a pollutant; and
- supporting development of policies and regulatory frameworks that support the Partnership Area’s aims, in line with the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
The Partnership Area also updates mercury inventory information by providing guidance on methods for cement plants to assess their emissions more accurately. It held its annual meeting on 13 February 2023 to, among others, welcome new partners, review its draft business plan, and present recent and upcoming activities. The Partnership Area will report biannually to UNEP on performance and effectiveness, with results determined based on: expanding the knowledge base of effective tools for managing and reducing mercury emissions from cement plants; availability of guidance tools to help countries achieve emission reductions; and emission reductions achieved. Funding will be needed for: project management and support; technology development/demonstration and pilot testing; and capacity building and government assistance, including the development of related guidance documents.
Another UNEP initiative is taking on mercury in the gold mining industry in nine countries, with plans to scale up efforts in 15 other affected countries. Over 100 million people rely on artisanal gold mining for their livelihoods, so working with governments to equip miners with the knowledge and tools necessary to phase out mercury use is critical. Funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the initiative aims to cut mercury use by 512 tons.
About 20 million miners in more than 80 countries work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), including more than four million women and children. However, often unsafe and unregulated, ASGM is responsible for 37% of global mercury pollution and emits 2,000 tons every year. Many miners feel they have no choice whether to use mercury but feel it should be banned. While many governments are taking action to implement safer standards under the Minamata Convention, enforcement is not always consistent and equipment not always accessible.
Another UNEP-backed project seeks to eliminate mercury from skin lightening products. The Governments of Gabon, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka have joined in a USD 14 million project to eliminate the use of mercury in these products, taking a holistic approach to phasing out mercury. By promoting all skin tones as beautiful, the project also aims to shift cultural norms on skin complexion, through engaging organizations, healthcare professionals, and influencers working in the industry. While these products fade freckles, blemishes, and age spots and treat acne, they also inhibit the body’s production of melanin, which helps determine skin, hair, and eye color. They can also cause skin rashes, discoloration, and scarring, as well as nervous, digestive, and immune system damage and anxiety and depression. Skin lightening products can also pose risks to children through breastmilk, and food chains can become contaminated when cosmetics are washed off into wastewater.
The Minamata Convention set mercury limits in skin lightening products to one milligram per kilogram. A 2018 test of 300 products from 22 countries found that around 10% exceeded this limit, with many containing as much as 100 times the authorized amount. The initiative focuses not only on substitutions for harmful ingredients, but on awareness building that can help change behaviors.
The three countries will align their policies on the cosmetic sector with best practice, creating an enabling environment to phase out mercury. The three-year project is being funded by the GEF and carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Biodiversity Research Institute.