Toxic Nation

The simple mercury thermometer may be an essential part of our lives, but it can have a lethal effect on you, unless dealt with care. Shravan Regret Iyer takes a look at how mercury is handled in India and overseas, to reveal how indiscriminate use and careless handling of mercury is poisoning our environment and bodies.

Every healthcare kit comes with a thermometer, which contains mercury that helps us determine body temperature. We never pause to think about this silvery liquid floating inside the glass tube, but perhaps we ought to.

According to the Mercury Policy Project of the United Nations’ Environment Programme, the one-gram of mercury that the average thermometer contains is enough to contaminate a 20-acre lake. Now you know why as a child your elders always told you to be careful while handling thermometers. The scientific reason behind it is that Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, capable of damaging internal organs of human body.

If a thermometer breaks and spills its contents, the mercury that comes out disperses into tiny droplets, which becomes nearly invisible but nevertheless emits a toxic vapour, which can be lethal when inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Mercury from discarded thermometers and industrial waste might end up in incinerators or smokestacks, which could spread the poison over a huge area. Or it ends up in a landfill, from where it could creep into the ground water supply.

When mercury eventually settles in a water body, a bacterial metabolic process takes place and transforms it into methyl mercury, which can climb through the food chain i.e bacteria to plankton to fish, and through them to animals or humans who eat the fish, with disastrous effects.

But, if you though the amount of damage a single gram of mercury can cause is startling, imagine what 3,700 metric tonnes of the stuff can unleash. According to a recent study by the European Commission, that’s the amount of the chemical that is purchased around the world each year for various industrial purposes.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that mercury from mercury thermometers alone contributes 17 tons of mercury to solid waste every year. Though mercury takes a liquid form in normal temperatures, it is actually a metal, deposits of which are found in the earth. Though it is not mined in India, the country is still is the largest importer of the chemical in the world. It is estimated that release of mercury into the environment in India ranges from 172.5 – 200 tonnes annually, indicating the sheer scale of the danger it could lead to.

No wonder then that the ‘ban mercury’ movement is slowly gaining ground in western countries. The World Health Organisation issued a policy paper in the year 2005 calling for short, medium and long-term measures to substitute mercury-based medical devices with safer alternatives. The World Medical Association passed a resolution in 2008 calling for a similar move. Many European Union countries immediately banned the use of mercury-based thermometers after this.

Several countries have said no to mercury and have been declared ‘mercury free areas’. Cuba was one of the earliest to impose a ban on mercury-based medical devices, in 1980. For the last 10 years, it has been impossible to purchase mercury thermometers or other medical devices in the United States, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark, among other countries. Even developing nations like Argentina, Philippines, Uruguay, Taiwan, have all have taken similar steps.

So what is India doing about this grave issue? According to an environmentalist in Bengaluru, developing countries like India will take a longer time to completely ban it as a whole of lot of industries are dependent on the use of mercury-based instruments such as thermometers. However in India too, in March 2010, the Central government issued guidelines to phase out mercury-containing equipment from all government run hospitals.

True enough, as the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, the Hazardous Waste Management and Handling Rule (1989), The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, all cover mercury and mercury compounds. So does the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 and The Workmen’s Compensation Act, among others.

But implementation of the rules is another story. Environmentalists feel implementation and regulation will take a long time even as many of the toxic drugs, pesticides and other hazardous substances are slowly getting phased out. The media plays a very important role here in raising awareness among the people, especially in vernacular languages for these rules and guidelines to be very effective. Presently, India stands as the second largest consumer of elemental mercury for uses in alkali production, thermometers, blood pressure instruments, batteries, dental amalgam, lighting, switches and paints. India produces 2.4 metric tonnes of mercury, which gets into the environment every year from broken thermometers alone.

Some environmentalists feel one of the main reasons that India has not put a ban on the manufacture or sale of mercury, even though there are digital thermometers, is that it comes under the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, which also allows anyone, including those making skin creams at home, to make any product using mercury. What’s worse is that disposal of broken thermometers in India is always done into rubbish or maybe even incineration with other med waste.”

As abysmal as the situation is, India is in no position to ban mercury completely as experts point out. But we can phase out mercury-containing products and encourage hospitals and medical facilities to switch to non-mercury equivalents.

Recently some of the government hospitals in Delhi did just that, and are the first to do so in the company. Nearly 30-odd hospitals now provide mercury free treatment in Delhi, but this has not been the case in any other state in the country, although it clearly is a step in the right direction.

Mercury guidelines

1) All Central Government hospitals and health centres are advised to gradually phase out mercury-containing equipment (thermometer, BP instruments etc.,) and to replace them with good quality non-mercury alternatives.

2) Till the mercury-based equipment are fully phased out, following guidelines are to be used for managing of mercury waste.

  • As mercury waste is hazardous, the storage, handling, treatment should be under the Hazardous Waste Rules 2008.
  • Mercury waste should not be mixed with biomedical waste or with general waste. It should not be swept down to the drain.
  • Precautions should be taken not to handle mercury with bare hands.
  • Mercury-containing thermometers should be kept in a container.
  • In case of breakage, cardboard sheet should be used to push the spilt mercury together.

3) Standard reporting procedures must be used to report and register any mercury spill/leakages.

4) Hospitals and health centres should work to create awareness among the health workers.

This story was originally published in Bangalore Beat, July 6, 2010, edition.