Mercury is a very toxic and dangerous substance. It is poisonous in all forms - inorganic, organic or elemental. Mercury is a proven neurotoxin. Inhaling mercury vapours can severely damage the respiratory tract. Sore throat, coughing, pain or tightness in the chest, headache, muscle weakness, anorexia, gastrointestinal disturbance, fever, bronchitis and pneumonitis are symptoms of mercury toxicity. Health concerns should be reason enough for us to properly manage its imports and disposal. On the contrary, mercury has come to severely contaminate land, water, air and the food chain throughout India.
Poor regulatory practices have ensured that mercury contamination in India is reaching alarming levels largely due to the discharge of mercury bearing industrial effluents. And the biggest culprit has been the chlor-alkali industry, the largest consumer of the product. This sector alone released about 79 tonnes of the toxin into the atmosphere between 1997-2000. Their is no shortage of readily available substitutes but industry has to act.
In 2003, the Centre for Science and Environment compiled all studies of mercury monitoring done by government agencies, research institutions and NGOs and mapped critically polluted regions. The analysis reveals that high levels of mercury in fish stocks have been found, mainly in coastal areas. Mumbai, Kolkata, Karwar (in Karnataka) and North Koel (in Bihar) are some of the severely affected areas.
Despite all this data available with CSE shows only about .2 per cent of the mercury used in the country is regulated -- which effectively means that about 99 per cent of the mercury we use is completely unregulated.The recent popularity of energy efficient compact fluoroscent lamps or CFLs has added another dimension to the controversy. Mercury use does not have a substitute as far as CFL's are concerned but the amount used can be reduced.
CSE has been campaigning for a tough policy to restrict and regulate mercury emissions. It has also been asking that standards must be put in place to ensure that only the minimum required amount of mercury is used in CFLs. Disposal of CFLs is another issue the government must address urgently.