A national consultative workshop on mercury added products (MAPs) was held late last year as a stepping stone towards the ratification and implementation of the Minamata convention on mercury in South Africa, with a focus on reducing mercury through the development of MAP phase-out provisions. Mercury, which poses proven and well documented health hazards to human beings, is still used in several common electronic products.
“The Minamata convention on mercury is the latest in a series of global chemical and waste conventions to come out of the United Nations, and is a major international development in controlling the harmful effects of mercury pollution,” explains Samuel Chademana, mercury campaign manager at Groundwork, the organisation that hosted the workshop.
The objective of the Minamata convention on mercury is to protect human health and the environment from the anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The convention is comprised of 21 Articles, the third of which deals specifically with the phasing down, or out, of mercury use in products such as switches and relays, batteries, lighting, cosmetics as well as dental amalgam/medical devices.
The workshop was attended by representatives of the following government departments and other agencies: Health, Environmental Affairs, Trade and Industry, Agriculture and Forestry, Science and Technology, South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS). Also in attendance were representatives of the identified industrial associations representing manufacturers and distributors of MAPs, namely the South African Dental Association (SADA), Association of Representatives for the Electronics Industry (AREI), Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of South Africa (CTFA) as well as the South African Women Dermatologist Association.
“There is a serious waste management problem of mercury in South Africa, as the country does not currently have the technological capacity to effectively process mercury waste. It is currently being treated as general waste and ending up in landfill sites, municipal water systems and increasingly through incineration. All of these are inadequate ways of dealing with mercury waste as it eventually ends up in the contamination of water bodies, soil and air pollution, which in turn adversely affects both human and environmental health.”
The workshop deliberations were concluded with general consensus on a number of pertinent issues reflecting the interests and aspirations of stakeholders at the table, and the extent of their commitment in achieving the tenets of the Minamata convention. “Participants agreed unanimously that there is a significant problem of mercury in the country and the impacts are already being registered in biota as confirmed in studies done on water bodies and fish in the country by research organisations such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR),” Chademana says.
While the workshop participants agreed that there is consensus on the significance of mercury pollution in the country, they recognised that there are still gaps or uncertainty in the quantification of the actual magnitude of mercury pollution and use in the country. This issue was seen as requiring deliberate and urgent investment, from government and private sectors alike, to address.
Participants identified the lack of effective cross-sector collaboration among stakeholders, and the lack of alignment and integration of resource allocation and investments; painting a rather fragmented landscape of efforts to combat the anthropogenically induced effects of mercury. Participants called upon the need for closer cooperation among stakeholders and more transparency in the areas of resources and information sharing. The need to strengthen the technical capacity of relevant institutions such as border control through training and technological advancement were discussed and agreed upon as one way of effectively combating the import and export of non-compliant products.
From a statutory and policy perspective, participants agreed that while South Africa is a highly legislated space as far as chemical management is concerned, there is still a lag in the actual implementation of the policy and statutory instruments. It was also identified that the current punitive measures in place are too lenient and do not act as an effective deterrent for offenders flaunting rules and regulations.
A couple of strategies as a way forward were agreed upon arising from the discussions, explains Chademana. “There was broader consensus on the need for awareness raising efforts among consumers on the negative impacts of mercury containing products on both human health and the environment. Concerted efforts from government, civil society and private sectors are needed, but should be integrated and where possible pooling of resources should be undertaken to minimise duplication and wastage of resources.
“It was unanimously agreed that there is a need to increase the levels of investment and broaden the scope of research in maps targeting the whole value chain, from sourcing of raw materials all the way to disposal of used products. There is currently a serious lack of data in this area and hence it is difficult to make effective decisions both from a statutory and business perspective,” he concludes.