Minamata. The word has become familiar to Filipinos who, just two months ago, woke up to news that residents of two barangays in Palawan have been stricken with mercury poisoning, no thanks to an abandoned mercury mining site, the now defunct Palawan Quicksilver Mines Inc. that dumped its effluents into the province’s waterways.
This prompted calls for the declaration of a health crisis and the immediate evacuation and relocation of residents who showed symptoms of Minamata disease, named after the fishing village in Japan that in the late 1950s suffered the effects of mercury poisoning. The residents exhibited symptoms that ranged from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision, and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, paralysis, coma and eventual death occurred. A congenital form of the disease also showed up in the mid-1960s.
Years of investigation traced the disease to the Chisso chemical company that, for decades, had dumped its mercury-tainted wastewater directly into Minamata Bay, poisoning the fishing community’s steady diet of fish and shellfish that in turn affected the residents’ central nervous system.
Some 60 years later, the United Nations came up with the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty designed to protect people’s health and the environment from mercury emissions. Approved by close to 140 countries, including the Philippines, the Convention takes effect 90 days after ratification by at least 50 states.
It’s puzzling that the Philippines, which signed the Convention on Oct. 10, 2013, seems to tarry in ratifying it.
In an open letter to President Duterte, some 100 environmental, health and labor rights advocates belonging to the EcoWaste Coalition pressed the government to work for the immediate ratification of the historic global agreement, and to secure the required concurrence of the Senate before the first Conference of Parties (COP1) scheduled on Sept. 24-29 in Geneva.
The major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phaseout of existing ones, the phaseout and phasedown of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions to air, land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector engaged in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Ratifying the Convention would allow the Philippines “to effectively engage in the treaty processes, address gaps in existing regulations, and gain access to financial resources and beneficial technology transfer as well as capacity-building opportunities,” the EcoWaste coalition groups said.
By ratifying the Convention, the Philippines can attend the COP1 not as a mere observer but as a full participant, and can then build on its progressive policies and programs. Already, the country has started several initiatives meant to combat mercury pollution, including phasing out mercury-based medical devices in 2010, banning mercury use in mineral processing in small-scale gold mining, introducing extended producer responsibility for lighting products containing mercury in 2013, and prohibiting over 135 mercury-laden skin-whitening cosmetics since 2010.
According to the Ratification Dossier, “an annual estimate of 300 tons of mercury is released to the environment in the Philippines. By implementing restrictions on the importation and use of mercury and mercury-containing products, the Convention will reduce the amount of mercury consumption in the country, and therefore, minimize their subsequent release and adverse effects to the environment.”
Aside from the recent case in the two barangays in Palawan, other incidents of similar poisoning should sound the alarm. Among the cases cited by an expert from the National Poison Management and Control Center at the UP College of Medicine-Philippine General Hospital was that of some high school students in Parañaque who, in 2006, became exposed to elementary mercury. Then there are the miners chronically exposed to the heavy metal who complain of gingivitis and neurobehavioral changes, as well as cases of cerebral palsy among those exposed to mercury while in their mother’s womb.
And all it takes to help reverse the possibility of similar incidences is the President’s signature ratifying the Convention and the senators’ concurrence before September.