Study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reveals mercury poisoning in Sonbhadra district, CSE says a Minamata-style disaster waiting to happen

Laboratory study tests soil, water, fish and human blood, nails and hair.

Finds high and toxic levels of mercury in most samples

CSE suggests a range of urgent measures; calls for recognition of the problem. Says this silent tragedy must be stopped. Mercury is a clear and present danger

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Lucknow, October 19, 2012: A new study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based research and advocacy body, has found high levels of mercury in the environment as well as bodies of local people in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh’s second largest district.

Releasing the study here today, CSE director general SunitaNarain said: “Sonbhadra district, which is part of the resource-rich Singrauli area – is the nation’s industrial powerhouse with massive coal reserves and numerous power plants. Its people should have been thriving, prosperous and happy. But they are not -- our study reveals a sordid tale of pollution, poverty, non-compliance with environmental norms, official apathy and disease.”

CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, which has carried out the study according to internationally accepted methodologies, is known for having conducted seminal research in the areas of industrial contamination, water and air pollution, and food safety. Says Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general and head of this laboratory: “In 2011, residents of Sonbhadra approached CSE to study the increasing pollution and health problems in their district. We collected samples of water, soil, cereals and fish, as well as blood, nails and hair of people living there. What we have found is frightening – signs of mercury poisoning that bring to the mind memories of the devastating mercury contamination in Minamata in Japan.”

The tests and what they found

The sampling: The laboratory picked up six categories of samples from the district:

  • 19 people facing health problems were selected for blood, hair and nail samples.

  • 23 samples of water, a mix of groundwater, surface water and effluent, were collected from different places.

  • 7 soil samples were taken.

  • 5 samples of rice, wheat and pulses grown in the area were collected.

  • 3 fish samples were collected from different places in the GobindBallabh Pant Sagar (GBPS) reservoir. 

What were they tested for: Blood, hair and nail samples were tested for presenceof mercury. Water, soil and cereals were tested for mercury and other heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium andarsenic. The water was also tested for its hardness and total dissolved solids (TDS) content. Fish were tested for methyl mercury, the most poisonous form of mercury.

What was found:

  • Mercury was found in 84 per cent of the blood samples, at a very high level -- average mercury level (34.3 parts per billion or ppb) was six times what is considered safe. Though India doesn’t have a standard, the safe limit as per the US Environment Protection Agency is 5.8 ppb.The highest was 113.48 ppb, which is almost 20 times the safe limit.
  • Mercury was found in 58 per cent samples of human hair, with the average level at 7.39 ppm (parts per million). According to Health Canada (that country’s health department), 6 ppm is considered safe for hair; between 6-30 ppm falls in the 'increasing risk' category. The highest amount of mercury found in hair in the study was 31.3 ppm-- five times the safe limit. The study detected mercury in human nails too.
  • Mercury has contaminated groundwater in Sonbhadra. The highest concentration of mercury was found in the hand pump water sample of Dibulganj-- 0.026 ppm. This is 26 times the standard of 0.001 ppm set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
  • Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar reservoir is also contaminated with mercury. The level found in the reservoir, where the caustic soda manufacturing unit of Aditya Birla Chemicals Limited releases its effluent (Dongiyanallah), was 0.01 ppm.
  • The fish in the area were found to be contaminated by methylmercury. Fish from near Dongiyanallah had 0.447 ppm of methyl mercury, which is almost twice the standard set by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). 

Health impacts of mercury exposure
CSE researchers also undertook a health survey of the area and found high incidence of vitiligo, or skin discolouration, shivers, reduced vision, burning sensation in the limbs and impaired language skills among the people of Sonbhadra. All these are known to be symptoms of mercury exposure.

Chronic exposure to high levels of mercury can affect the nervous system and cause loss of memory, severe depression, increased excitability, delirium, hallucination and personality changes. It can also damage the kidneys. In extreme form, mercury poisoning can kill people as had happened in Minamata in Japan, where thousands died and generations suffered and are still suffering.

Government, industry knew about it, but kept quiet

In 1998, the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, a government research institution, had conducted a major study on mercury pollution in the Singrauli region. Over 1,200 people were examined. Sixty-six per cent of the people examined had more than 5 ppb mercury in their blood.

IITR also found high levels of mercury in drinking water and fish. The study was never made public because it was funded by NTPC Ltd, a public sector company.

The Central Pollution Control Board had also tested air and water of Singrauli on the direction of the Supreme Court and had found high levels of mercury. But no action was taken. “There is a conspiracy of silence and denial as far as mercury pollution in Singrauli is concerned,” says Narain.

The CSE study has found even higher levels of mercury exposure in the area than what was found by the previous studies. This indicates an increasing release and accumulation of mercury in the environment of Singrauli. Says Chandra Bhushan: “It took more than a quarter of a century in Minamata, Japan for mercury poisoning to take effect. We can not allow the same level of mercury to build up in the environment and people of Singrauli.”

What can be done?
Sonbhadra has been summarily ignored. Both the Central and state governments have not taken any concrete action to prevent pollution. Instead, there is a rush to build more power projects and open more mines. There is no importance given to the horrendous pollution of the area or its impact on people.

Says Chandra Bhushan: “About two years ago, Sonbhadra was declared a critically polluted area; it continues to be so even today. A moratorium imposed on new projects in the district was removed on the basis of an action plan, which did not even recognise mercury as a problem! To begin with, a moratorium should be imposed again and an action plan for mercury should be developed.”

CSE also demands that mercury standards should be developed for thermal power plants, coal mines and coal washeries. It wants all non-complying industries to be shut down till they meet the norms.

Treated water must be provided to all in Sonbhadra at the cost of the industries that have polluted. People must be stopped from eating fish contaminated with methyl mercury. Decontamination of sites like the GBPS reservoir and Aditya Birla Chemicals Limited must be done at the industry’s cost.

Says Narain: “The government must recognize and accept with all seriousness that it has to solve the mercury pollution problem. The conspiracy of silence must end.”

  •  For more details, contact Souparno Banerjee at 099108 64339 /

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) is one of India’s leading research and advocacy bodies working on issues of environment, pollution control and development. CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory has done seminal work in exposing contamination – ranging from contamination in food products (soft drinks, honey) to that in land, water and people’s bodies (Bhopal, Punjab). Please visit our website,, to know more about us and our work.