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Governments Agree Action on Mercury, but no Treaty

Date: 12-Feb-07
Country: KENYA
Author: Daniel Wallis

But the plan -- under which UN experts will spend two years studying all options to end use of the toxic heavy metal -- fell short of a legally binding treaty sought by anti-mercury campaigners and the European Union.

UN sources, however, characterised any agreement in the negotiations, which they said broadly pitted the United States against the EU, as a success.

"They have agreed to come up with a significant, enhanced action plan, and that in itself is an achievement," said a senior UN source involved in the talks. "And the potential for a treaty after two years is still there."

Exposure to mercury -- sometimes called quicksilver -- can damage the brain, nervous system and foetuses.

But while the West has substantially reduced its use, activists says poorer nations increasingly rely on it for processes ranging from small-scale gold mining to electronics manufacture and industrial chemicals production.

Campaigners and the EU had wanted this week's meeting of scores of environment ministers in Nairobi to back setting up a treaty that would impose tough targets on cutting mercury use worldwide.

The United States rejected the idea, preferring what it says are more flexible voluntary partnerships aimed at helping developing countries cut their use of the toxic metal.

"There is no difference of opinion between us and the Europeans about the need to end the threat from mercury," Claudia McMurray, US assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, told Reuters.

"There is just a difference about how to do it."

The EU, the world's top mercury exporter, plans to ban exports by 2011. The biggest importers are China and India.

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