Mercury and the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Mercury (Hg) exists on Earth in three forms: as a metal element, inorganic mercury, and organic compounds. Inorganic mercury causes disorders upon inhalation, but this is mainly an issue upon occupational, high-concentration exposure. Organic mercury is consumed through food and can have serious effects on the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. In Korea, a national survey conducted from 2005 to 2008 regarding heavy metal concentrations in the body found that the blood mercury concentration was 3.0∼4.34μg/l, which is approximately five times greater than that of countries such as the United States and Germany. The limit of 5.8μg/l recommended by the U.S. EPA was exceeded by 30% of participants.

The Ministry of Environment has been implementing national measures for mercury control (Mercury Control Plan 2006-2010) since 2006. It is currently working on the 2nd Comprehensive Plan on Mercury Control (2011-2015), the vision of which is to “minimize health risks caused by mercury pollution.” The aim of the 2nd Comprehensive Plan is to significantly reduce the proportion of the population displaying high blood mercury levels and to prepare for an international agreement on mercury, and involves projects across the following five sectors. First is the integrated management of the mercury life cycle from raw materials to mercury-containing products and waste products. Second is stricter mercury control in air, water, and waste emission facilities by reinforcing emission limits. Third is reinforced environment monitoring by strengthening the national mercury monitoring network and building a long-distance mercury monitoring system. Fourth is prevention of mercury damage in vulnerable and sensitive populations by preparing exposure reduction measures based on measures such as a basic survey on national health and human exposure monitoring of sensitive and vulnerable populations and high-exposure groups in specific areas, and by preparing a recommended seafood consumption guide. Fifth is strengthening the basis of mercury control by preparing for an international mercury agreement while also establishing an associated database.

Internationally, there are definite movements to create a UN-centered international agreement on mercury control. Since the decision was made in 2009 to pursue an agreement, there have been a total of five intergovernmental negotiating committee meetings, and this resulted in the adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury in Kumamoto, Japan in October 2013.

Korea has been actively participating in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to present ideas based on national opinions gathered through industrial groups. In preparation for the effectuation of the international mercury agreement, Korea will actively participate in the intergovernmental negotiating committee and get ready to join the agreement by communicating with industries and other stakeholders.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) refer to substances such as DDT, PCBs, and dioxins that are highly toxic and are not easily broken down in natural environments, remaining for long periods of time and building up to high concentrations in organisms to pose major risks to humans and ecosystems. The Stockholm Convention on prohibiting the production and use of these substances was adopted by the UNEP in 2001 and took effect as of 2004. Korea ratified the Convention in January 2007.

▶ Dioxins

An emission source and emission volume survey project on dioxins has been carried out since 2001, and “national dioxin emissions (emissions inventory)” have been announced every two years since 2005. The survey includes steel, nonferrous metal, and other industries that emit dioxins in addition to waste incineration facilities, where dioxin controls have been in place since 1997.

According to the results of the national dioxin emissions (emissions inventory) survey, 120.9g I-TEQ/year of dioxins were emitted into the air in 2011, a reduction of 88% compared to 2001 (1,004g I-TEQ/year). Waste incineration facilities accounted for 42.8g I-TEQ/year of dioxins, a reduction of 95.1% compared to 2001. This rapid decrease in dioxin emissions from incineration facilities appears to be the result of a variety of policies, such as expanding the application scope of dioxin regulations from medium to large incineration facilities to small incineration facilities of less than 0.2 tons starting from 2003, significantly tightening permissible emission levels, measuring dioxin emissions from emission facilities and encouraging establishments that exceed the limits to improve their facilities, and providing technical support for smaller establishments.

▶ PCBs

Discussions on eco-friendly methods to treat PCBs began in 2006, and technologies such as high-temperature incineration and chemical treatment are being developed to treat wastes containing PCBs in accordance with local circumstances. Because PCB reduction requires the status of contaminated equipment to be identified in advance, a PCB source inventory is being created by requiring the owners of oil-immersed transformers and other equipment subject to controls to declare the equipment, in addition to enforcing the Persistent Organic Pollutants Control Act.

There are an estimated 2.2 million transformers in Korea, 90% of which are owned by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO). Approximately 20-25% of the transformers is designated waste containing 2ppm or more of PCBs and must be treated in accordance with legally prescribed standards. KEPCO has addressed approximately 150,000 waste transformers that had accumulated over the years until the end of 2010. From 2011, it has been creating a monthly handling system for treating wastes generated each month.

▶ New POPs

After 2009, perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and other new substances were added to the list of substances regulated under the Stockholm Convention. While the previous 12 substances were mostly agricultural chemicals, the newly listed substances were mostly industrial substances. Korea amended laws in 2011 to prepare a domestic regulatory basis for the new POPs and is formulating control measures by investigating residues of new POPs in environmental media.

Ensuring the Safety of Nanomaterials

Nanomaterials are chemical substances measuring 1 to 100 nanometers in size, manufactured using nanotechnology. Substances such as silver, carbon, titanium dioxide, and gold exhibit different properties when produced in nanosize form. Nanomaterials are not only used by industries as new materials but can also be frequently encountered in everyday settings through sunscreens, cosmetics, purification filters, and other commercial products. The potential risks of nanomaterials, however, have not been thoroughly examined.

Accordingly, the OECD set up the Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) in September 2006 to review the impact of nanomaterials on human health and environmental safety. A nanomaterial safety test sponsorship program has been implemented for 14 types of manufactured nanomaterials. Korea is actively cooperating by participating in toxicity tests and supervising the sponsorship program.

To ensure the systematic implementation of nano safety-related projects, which were previously carried out by each government ministry, the Mid-term Plan on Nanomaterial Safety Management (2010-2014) was formulated by the Ministry of Environment in 2010. The pan-governmental “1st Comprehensive Plan on Nano Safety Management (2012-2016)” was formulated and has been implemented since 2011. A survey on the distribution and specific status of nanomaterials (2011-2015) is also in progress, through which a national nano inventory is being created.

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Last modified : 2017-12-12 08:38

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