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Focus on Latin America

October 2011

A Scourge of Mankind for Centuries

PhotoMercury pollution research at the Evandro Chagas Institute

Mercury poisoning has been a scourge of mankind for centuries.

The first emperor of unified China, Chin Shi Huang, reputedly died after ingesting mercury pills which he had hoped would instead promote eternal life.

The popular Anglo-Saxon saying "Mad as a hatter" reputedly refers to the effects of mercury poisoning suffered by 18th and 19th century workers in the hat industry where mercury compounds were widely used and eventually caused widespread illness.

In Japan's post World War II industrial expansion more than 12,000 people in the southern city of Minamata were poisoned after industrial mercury was dumped into the sea and local fish stocks became contaminated. The city subsequently became a center of international renown for mercury research.

Japan has used that incident and its high level research to assist developing countries such as Kazakhstan, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Mongolia and Brazil to confront similar problems.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) together with the National Institute of Minamata Disease began helping Brazilian organizations to strengthen their mercury analytical and diagnostic capabilities following the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

A recent three-year project focused on the Tapajos River region where intensive gold mining has been carried out for decades. Mercury used to extract gold leeched into the river and then further afield into the Amazon River basin which it joins downstream.

JICA's support has helped the Evandro Chagas Institute to become a leading center of mercury pollution monitoring in both the health and environmental fields, by providing advanced equipment, dispatching Japanese experts to Brazil and training local officials.

PhotoResearching mercury pollution at Brazil's Evandro Chagas Institute

A new center is being established on the upper region of the Amazon basin in Acre state which will serve the needs of not only Brazil but surrounding states including Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

A follow-up two year project helped develop a manual on the management of medical contaminated waste and an initial research report on mercury usage.

That report will provide a basis for the development of a national program in Brazil and will feed into an important ongoing international dialogue initiated by the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) which aims to establish a treaty by 2013 to govern the usage, trade and emission of mercury.

Many of JICA's projects in Latin America stress their ‘knock on’ or ‘added value’ effect whereby the knowledge and results of initial programs are then shared with other communities or countries.

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