The health concerns of people at Grassy Narrows First Nation are on the agenda this week at an international meeting of health ministers.

The World Health Assembly —  a decision-making body for the World Health Organization — was to specifically discuss a resolution on the new international treaty on mercury, the Minamata Convention, on Wednesday in Geneva.

“For too long, mercury exposure has been a neglected health issue,” said Juliane Kippenberg of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that has been paying close attention to the meetings.

One of the group's aims is to prevent the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations, and among child labourers in developing nations.

“This week’s meeting is a unique chance for health ministries to push the issue of mercury poisoning up the international health agenda.”

Former Chief Fobister

Former Chief of Grassy Narrows, Steve Fobister, says he has severe symptoms of mercury poisoning, including muscle spasms in his jaw and weakness in his legs that require him to use a cane. ( (Jody Porter/CBC))

For decades, people at Grassy Narrows have been seeking more recognition and better treatment of the symptoms they suffer after their fishery was contaminated in the 1960s by mercury from a nearby pulp mill.

Mercury is a highly toxic liquid metal that attacks the central nervous system and remains in the environment for long periods of time. It is particularly harmful to children, according to a Human Rights Watch release.

The group reports much of the world’s mercury is used in small-scale gold mining, where an estimated 15 million adults and children use it on a regular basis to retrieve the gold, most of them unaware of its health risks. The mercury is mixed into the ore to create an amalgam, and then burned off, releasing toxic vapours.

Challenge lies in 'taking action'

A compensation board was established in 1985 for people in Grassy Narrows who are diagnosed with Minimata disease. But a Japanese expert in Minamata found only about a quarter of people experiencing symptoms receive the proper diagnosis.

"What really needs to happen now, and where the challenge lies, is taking action," Kippenberg said of the ongoing meetings in Geneva.

"And making sure that health programs, comprehensive health programs on mercury are really being initiated and implemented."

The Minamata Convention was adopted last year with the approval of 139 governments, and  convention calls on governments to put more effort into diagnosing and treating mercury exposure.

Canada opposed health aspect of treaty

But Canada has dragged its heels, Kippenberg noted.

When the treaty was being drafted, "Canada actually opposed the creation of a stand-alone article on health and the role of the health sector and very much emphasized that this should be an environmental treaty and not a health treaty," Kippenberg said.

So far the United States is the only government to have ratified the convention.

This week Health ministers are being urged to press their governments to make mercury poisoning a health priority.

"It is vital for public health services to diagnose, test and treat mercury exposure and train and equip health workers to do that," she added.