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Mercury poisoning around the globe will increase unless steps are taken to curb pollution from power stations, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, Global Mercury Assessment, says that coal-fired power stations and waste incinerators account for about 70 per cent of emissions of mercury to the atmosphere caused by human activities. Most of this pollution is now coming from developing countries, especially Asia.

"As combustion of fossil fuels is increasing in order to meet the growing energy demands of both developing and developed nations, mercury emissions can be expected to increase accordingly in the absence of the deployment of control technologies or the use of alternative energy source," the report says.

Mercury is highly toxic and can build up in humans and in wildlife. It can cause memory loss, impaired coordination and other adverse effects, and is particularly harmful to young children

"[This report] shows that the global environmental threat to humans and wildlife has not receded despite reductions in mercury discharges, particularly in developed countries," says UNEP's executive director Klaus Toepfer. "Indeed it shows that the problems remain and appear, in some situations to be worsening as demand for energy, the largest source of human-made mercury emissions, climbs."

The report is to be presented to environment ministers in Nairobi, Kenya from 3 - 7 February at UNEP's Governing Council. It makes a range of policy recommendations, including launching talks for a legally binding treaty, strengthening cooperation between governments on information-sharing, creating public awareness programmes, and installing pollution control technologies in power stations.

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UNEP Global Mercury Assessment (5.6MB)  PDF document