Last week on 10 August, India had a launch workshop on Initial Mercury Management in India by Ministry of environment, Forest and Climate Change to manage and monitor mercury based on a realistic assessment of its use, emission, environmental contamination, prevention, alternative strategies for reduction in emissions and elimination of use esp. in medical field over next two years. This would also help explore possibilities for ratification of the Minamata Convention to which India is a signatory since September 2014.
Global Environment Facility (GEF) sponsored this project viz ‘Improve Mercury Management in India’ being implemented by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India; with an objective to assess India’s capacity to manage and monitor mercury use, import, export, stockpiles, emissions and releases throughout the country prior to making an informed decision on ratifying the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
It is noteworthy the visibility of Mercury in environment has gone up manyfold over the centuries, with potential to move around the globe. Earlier pre-industrization deposits of mercury from atmosphere occurred from natural sources, which is more or less constant in recent times. Normal breakdown of minerals in rocks and soil from exposure to wind and water, and from volcanic activity releases mercury from natural sources into the environment. The man-made anthropogenic sources have expanded leading to a steady increase. The coal-fired thermal power plants, cement and steel production, caustic- alkali industries, smelters, gold industry and the artisans work constitute a major source. The batteries and manometers are also of concern in everyday life. Its use in medical industry, starting from thermometers to sphygmomanometers, dental amalgams, laboratory reagents, vaccine components, and some Ayurvedic preparations. Improper disposal of mercury-containing products such as thermometers, thermostats, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, auto parts etc also adds to the mercury in our environment. The new Bio-Medical Waste Rule 2016 also give a regulatory cover to its use and disposal.
Mercury from anthropogenic sources get released most commonly into the air, with 80% as elemental mercury, from industry mining, sheltering, fossil fuel burning and incineration of solid waste. A smaller proportion, around 15%, is released into the soil from land-based disposals of waste, medico-electrical and agriculture products. Mercury contamination of water accounts for the rest, from industrial effluents. The elemental/ inorganic mercury gets convened to methyl mercury, a more harmful compound, by the bacteria in the soil. And it is this form that bio-accumulates in the food-chain.
It is heartening to note the successful voluntary efforts of the alkali- industry in India claiming near total elimination of mercury, with practically none using it now! The healthcare and medical industry is showing the way of making hospitals and clinics mercury-free.
Our Lok Nayak Hospital under Delhi Government has been mercury-free for several years now. More efforts and awareness is needed, especially identification of the hitherto unappreciated usage. There are concerns on its free and ‘liberal’ use in schools, with no accountability or tracking. We are told there are idols in market doing rounds, that shine like mercury as they are claimed to be made from mercury. We don’t need another Minamata disaster as a result of improper disposal of waste from a agriculture and petrochemical industry! De-contamination of existing polluted sites is another big concern owing to the long-life of mercury.
With no physiological function in human body, this element Mercury particularly in its compound forms has proved immensely harmful to the nervous system, kidneys and more so for the young ones even before their birth. Mercury has a huge potential for bio-accumulation through the food-chain leading to million-fold concentrations in the life at higher levels.
Thus, this project on mercury assessment and management in India gains an immense potential to improve the health of mankind.