Ground alert
The mercury threat is rising. As developed nations get tough with mercury-generating industries, the developing world, and India in particular, is becoming a hotspot for this deadly metal that plays havoc with human health

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All about mercury (Download pdf)

A global warning has been sounded. A recent meeting of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) concluded that the global risk to humans and animals from the release of mercury into the environment is so high that immediate international action is needed to identify groups at risk and to reduce human-generated mercury releases.

'We need to raise awareness among policy-makers'

srivastava.jpg (3735 bytes)Dr R C Srivastava,
co-chairperson of the Mercury Assessment Group, UNEP, and former deputy director of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow, speaks on the dangers of mercury pollution and the possible solutions

What is the level of mercury pollution in India?
The major sources of mercury pollution in India are chlor-alkali industries, industrial processes in thermal power plants, steel and cement industries, coal fired power and heat production, mercury-containing products such as thermometers, blood pressure equipment, pesticides, dental amalgam, and waste incineration processes.

Presently, mercury consumption in the Indian chlor-alkali sector is at least 50 times higher than the global average. This sector alone contributes to about 40 per cent of the total mercury pollution in the country. The average specific mercury loss from a mercury cell plant in India is 142 gm per metric tonne (MT) of caustic soda (NaOH) produced. At this rate, the caustic chlorine sector alone emits 79 metric tonnes of mercury every year.

Mercury contamination of water is also verging on a
crisis situation. Industrial effluents containing mercury in the range of 0.058 to 0.268 mg/l are discharged in water, whereas WHO and Indian drinking water guidelines specify only 0.001 mg/l. Mercury levels in water near caustic chlorine firms have been reported to be as high as 0.176 mg/l in water and approximately 596 mg/kg dry weight in soil.

The concentration of mercury in blood and hair of the human population has been reported to be as high as 100 mg/dl and 8 mg/g respectively at industrial sites compared to 5mg/dl and 1mg/g in unexposed populations. The concentration of mercury in fish and other sea food consumed in certain coastal areas is reported to be in the range of 0.03-10.82 mg/g compared to a permissible limit of 0.5 mg/g.

How can this be controlled?
There is sufficient global evidence of the adverse impacts of mercury to warrant national and international action to reduce the risks to human health and the environment and to develop realistic response strategies. We could start with reducing consumption of raw materials and products that generate emissions.

We should also substitute products and processes containing or using mercury with non-mercury alternatives. One option is end-of-pipe technologies. We also need to look at viable mercury waste management techniques and develop action plans to address the use and release of mercury through multi-disciplinary approaches.

We can start setting up environment quality standards and provide incentives to promote substitution of mercury-using products and processes. Perhaps what is most important is raising awareness among policy-makers.

How effective are current Indian regulations?
Our country lacks the regulatory infrastructure and resources needed to safeguard the public and environment from mercury. Most European countries have formulated laws that ban the use of mercury in products and processes. The government of India is only trying to bring about a legislation for the phased elimination of mercury from consumer products. Import of mercury is still legal under Indian laws. As per the Basel Convention, mercury falls under the hazardous products category. Therefore, we should enforce stringent regulations to prohibit import, export, sale and use of this substance.

Do you think there are viable alternatives to the existing use of mercury in India?
Several countries have adopted mercury free alternatives in the health sector, electrical applications, the automobile sector, in chemicals, dental amalgams and especially in the chlor-alkali sector. Clearly, they are viable.

What should the plan of action be?
We need to regularly monitor mercury levels in air, water, soil and food materials, generate data on the environmental release of mercury and its origin and speciation, pathways and deposition. We need to conduct studies on exposed populations, come up with awareness programmes for the general public and establish a task force to coordinate and implement the mercury action plan and poison information centres to provide round-the-clock information.

Mercury, a heavy metal, is used in a number of industrial applications and products. It is a highly mobile element and cannot be broken down into harmless components. When it combines with carbon, it forms organic mercury compounds such as methyl mercury, which is the most common form of mercury found in the environment. This methyl mercury passes into the air, soil and the food chain, mostly through aquatic animals. It can then become a considerable health risk.

The Council was responding to a December 2002 report by the Global Mercury Assessment Working Group, instituted by the UNEP to undertake a global assessment of mercury and mercury compounds and their impact on the environment. The report says that stricter regulations and a reduction in the use of mercury in developed nations have led to an untoward increase in the use of cheap mercury and outdated technologies in the developing world.

Presently, India is the second-largest user of mercury in the world (170–190 tonnes a year) after the US (372 tonnes annually). While the US has an effective retrieval system and strict norms, India hardly has any regulation worth speaking of. Slowly, but surely, mercury pollution is the crisis of the near-future. The Indian government’s track record is indeed very poor. There are no norms for controlling the use of mercury in various products. A draft notification was issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2000 for a phased elimination of mercury from consumer products, but so far no action has been taken on it. The government may have banned the setting-up of new mercury-based caustic soda plants, but it does not have any concrete plans to phase out the existing ones, which are causing widespread mercury pollution.

Furthermore, according to the Canadian Global Emissions Interpretation Centre (CGEIC), which has published data on the spatial distribution of mercury emissions in air, India is one of the world’s mercury hotspots, with mercury being released into the air uniformly at a rate of 0.1–0.5 tonnes per year, with coastal areas having an even higher emission rate ranging between 0.5 to 2 tonnes/year. According to the CGEIC, anthropogenic emission of mercury is estimated to have increased in India by 27 per cent in the last decade. Clearly, mercury is a major problem and action needs to be taken now.

Use and abuse
There are two sources from which mercury can be mobilised into the environment — natural and anthropogenic or human-generated. Anthropogenic emission, again, can be of two kinds — intentional and unintentional. The release of mercury into the environment through industrial processes and products is generally intentional, while mobilisation of mercury impurities in fossil fuels — particularly coal, and to a lesser extent gas and oil — and other extracted, treated and recycled minerals is mostly unintentional. It is the anthropogenic emission of mercury that is the cause for greatest concern.

What is the answer to this looming crisis? It is possible to replace mercury with other available industrial raw
materials, but before that, what is needed is immediate and effective policy changes, before it is too late.

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