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Addressing the mercury lifecycle for improved human health

October 22, 2021

Portrait of Monika Stankiewicz, Executive Secretary of the Minamata Convention on Mercury
Photo courtesy of the Minamata Convention

Monika Stankiewicz is Executive Secretary of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty aimed at preventing harmful exposure to mercury – a neurotoxic metal that is frequently emitted to the air and released to the water and land. In an interview, she explained how improved chemicals management can help global efforts to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, and shared what she finds meaningful about working in environmental diplomacy.

What do you do for a living?

I am the Executive Secretary of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, one of the youngest global environmental agreements, which came into force in 2017 to address mercury pollution. The Convention’s 135 party governments have committed to ban new mercury mines, phase out existing ones, phase out mercury use in a range of products and processes, and control its emissions to air and releases to land and water. They are also working to reduce and eliminate the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Countries are in the “driver’s seat” of the Convention and their actions are making a real difference to reduce mercury emissions, releases, and exposures. My task is to support their collective effort.

What makes mercury management a global issue?

Mercury is a chemical element that is ubiquitous – it exists and it is used all over the world. It will not disappear from the Earth but needs to be managed properly because it can be extremely harmful to human health, with impacts for future generations as well. Exposure to mercury can harm the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, and immune processes; it can cause tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, insomnia, and emotional instability. It is especially dangerous for infants in the womb.

The Minamata Convention addresses mercury in a comprehensive way – what we call “the mercury lifecycle” that covers mercury mining; imports and exports; products and processes; emissions to air, releases to land and water; contaminated sites; waste management, and much more. It means that our Convention touches many aspects of individual national situations – from power generation to waste management to dental practices. It also relates to broader efforts on industrial development, supply chain management, trade and procurement policies, and health policies.

Addressing mercury on an international scale is the only way to go, and doing so will have a substantial impact on tackling what the UNEP Executive Director calls the “triple planetary crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Human activity has resulted in atmospheric mercury levels being 450 percent higher than natural levels. Mercury pollution has negative impacts on biological diversity, human health, and ecosystem services, such as the foods that are grown in soil or harvested from fresh and marine water, and nature’s ability to regulate air and water quality. Ocean and land health, biodiversity, pollution, climate change, and chemicals – these are inseparable topics.

How did you get into this line of work?

When I was looking for my first job, there were not many opportunities in Poland, where I come from. It was common for people with higher education to take any job solely to earn a living, hoping they could do something at least remotely connected to their education over time. I was no different. I received a Master of Science in chemistry at the University of Gdansk, and only by chance did I get the opportunity to build a career in environmental diplomacy.

My first job was in public administration in Poland, where I worked on a range of environmental issues at the national and international level. After seven years, I moved to HELCOM, an intergovernmental organization for the protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea. This began my career as an international civil servant, first as professional secretary and later as HELCOM’s Executive Secretary. Mercury was one of the issues I worked directly on, as it is among the three top hazardous substances heavily impacting the Baltic Sea. I used to say that my career as an international civil servant just happened to me. But it was a different story with joining the Minamata Convention, whose work and ambitions are meaningful to me on many levels. What I like about it is that it is perfectly implementable – I get to be involved in processes that will directly lead to actual reductions in mercury emissions and releases in the world.

Jar of pins saying "Say no to mercury"
Photo courtesy of the Minamata Convention

While working on environmental issues I often think back to my early life, when I lived in a reality where human rights were not always respected, and people were deprived of many intangible but important things. This made me value freedom more than anything else and made me very sensitive to injustice. Both freedom and justice are directly connected to environmental work, and that is a big reason that I find working in this field so meaningful. Thanks to my profession, I have been able to work to improve conditions for people from all different backgrounds and circumstances, and also feel connected with many other people who share the same concerns and hopes for a healthier planet for us and for future generations. This has deeply affected me and I am immensely grateful for the chance to make things better, and to be part of knowledge and efforts that are bigger than me.

Is there a GEF-supported initiative that is close to your heart?

The GEF is part of the financial mechanism of the Minamata Convention, providing funding to support developing countries’ implementation of the Convention. The projects and programs the GEF supports are well-grounded in science and data about mercury use, emissions, and releases. One that is especially special to me is planetGOLD. This program addresses the largest source of mercury use and emissions in the world: artisanal and small-scale gold mining. PlanetGOLD takes a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to the issue, recognizing the many socio-economic dimensions of this informal sector, and its place in global supply chains. For example, the program employs a very strong gender focus, ensuring that it empowers and does not marginalize women who work in this sector. The GEF has already provided support to 43 countries to develop National Action Plans on artisanal and small-scale gold mining, as called for in the Convention. PlanetGOLD helps them to not only implement these plans but take broader steps to transform the sector to the benefit of mining communities, indigenous peoples, and the planet.   

Is there someone you have met through your work who has had a lasting impact on you?

I have met many wonderful people in my work life who taught me to not only listen to those most outspoken but also the quiet ones, whom I admire for their incredible work ethic, and who inspired me with their innovative ideas and out of the box thinking. Inspiration often comes unexpectedly and from different people around us, irrespective of their roles or positions.

Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?

For the environment to be protected, other problems of our world must be solved – eradicating poverty and inequality and ensuring peace. In October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a new resolution on the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. There are also more court rulings in different countries about the environment that include a human rights obligation to protect people from the effects of climate change. These are significant developments that I am excited about.

Directly connected to my area of work, sound management of chemicals and waste is so important. We will not realize the potential of collective action on biodiversity, deforestation, oceans, fisheries, and climate without sound chemicals management playing a strong role – not a parallel role on the side, but an integrated one. As I said to the GEF Council at its 60th session, we cannot separate the health of the planet from the health of people. The economic and social benefits of the full implementation of the Minamata Convention are widespread, and I am encouraged by how well the Convention has been mainstreamed to some other policies. I know that more can be done in this regard.

What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?

The first segment of the fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties will take place in November 2021. This will be our first-ever virtual COP, to be followed by an in-person resumed session in 2022. I expect that this online segment will approve an ambitious work program for the next year and will advance Convention processes in several areas, including strong implementation support to parties in conjunction with the GEF’s next replenishment cycle and preparing for the first full national reporting on the implementation of the Convention. And the parties and I all hope that, despite the pandemic, we can meet face-to-face next year in Bali, Indonesia, to conclude the meeting with further substantial commitments to make mercury history.