ISIS Report 28/11/03
Mercury A Growing Scourge
Mercury pollution is a growing global menace.
Prof. Joe Cummins calls for UN regulation
for this report are available in the ISIS members site.
Full details here
Mercury pollution is a growing problem worldwide, especially for
communities in the orient and the arctic. Its impact has also been felt in the
gold fields of South American jungles. The Centre for Science and Environment
India (CSE) has put out a powerful indictment of the problem in their website
The website includes evidence that industry consumes and emit mercury at an
alarming rate under lax regulation, that India is a global mercury hot spot and
there are significant health impacts. India imports over 250 tonnes of mercury
each year and 220 tonnes leak into the environment. The main culprits are
outdated chlor-alkali plants and thermal power plants.
CSE proposes that a reduction in mercury pollution can be achieved in
three ways: switchover of mercury-using products and processes to non-mercury
alternatives, control of mercury release through end-of-pipe techniques, and
mercury waste management.
The medical journal Lancet recently summarized concerns over
mercury pollution in India focusing on medical waste from thermometers and
blood pressure monitors of which India produces over 10 million each year. The
wastes filter into water and mercury is released to the air during
Mercury is released to waterways in the form of ionic mercury while
atmospheric releases are about half elemental and half ionic mercury. In 1995,
Asia contributed 50% of total global atmospheric emission of mercury, while
Europe and North America combined contributes less than 25%. Atmospheric
mercury is circulated by wind and deposited in the form of elemental and ionic
mercury, which is converted to alkyl (primarily methyl) mercury that
bio-accumulates and magnifies through the food chain. High levels of methyl
mercury have been encountered in the diets of the residents of coastal India.
The impact of mercury pollution has been studied a great deal. The city
of Minimata in southern Japan was subject to widespread methyl mercury
poisoning related to chlor-alkali plant emissions from 1950 to 1969. The
resulting epidemic of mercury poisoning was called Minimata disease, it was the
first record of the impact of methyl mercury poisoning in humans. The impact on
the central nervous system and reproduction was severe, and long-term follow-up
of the affected population showed that the impact was persistent and included a
declining male birth ratio associated with increased fetal male abortion.
Prenatal exposure of children to their mothers dietary intake of
methyl mercury in pilot whale meat in the arctic Faroe Islands was associated
with both nerve and blood defects at even low levels of mercury pollution, and
similar results were reported for the island Maedera off the coast of Morocco,
where mercury accumulated in the deep sea fish black scabbard.
Gold mining operations on the Philippine island Mindanoa caused
extensive pollution of waterways and methyl mercury pollution of fish eaten by
residents. Children suffered nerve damage and were underweight. Children and
adults in the Quebec arctic, whose diets include marine mammals polluted with
methyl mercury, showed blood mercury levels above those producing subtle
neuro-developmental defects in other populations.
Clearly, the effects of mercury pollution are global in nature and
permeate areas where there is no industrial activity. Mercury pollution even at
very low levels produces subtle defects.
The United Nations Environmental program has been slow to act on the
global nature of mercury pollution. The United Nations consideration of
atmospherics aspects of mercury pollution seems to have ignored the need to
identify the sources of atmospheric mercury but instead allowed the problem to
be ascribed to the innocent victims of the deposition.
The United Nations will have to deal urgently with the trans boundary
mercury pollution and implement programs for remediation in the polluted