The Minamata Convention -- named after a Japanese city where mercury poisoning caused severe health problems in the mid-20th century -- is being signed in Japan after four years of complex negotiations among more than 140 member states, the United Nations Environmental Program reported.
Data show mercury emissions have been rising in a number of developing nations, UNEP said, with SouthEast Asia the largest regional emitter, accounting for almost half of the element's annual global emissions.
"With this convention, nations have laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized since Greek and Roman times," UNEP's Executive Director Achim Steiner said.
Exposure to mercury and its various compounds can cause brain and neurological damage, especially in young people, as well as harm to kidneys and the digestive system, UNEP said.
"Everyone in the world stands to benefit from [the treaty], in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come," Steiner said.