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Bringing a Quick End to Quicksilver

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One of the least recognized, but commonly used toxins that we face in daily life is now the subject of global attention. The liquid-metal, mercury, long considered the key to immortality in ancient cultures has in fact posed a danger to the physical and mental health of people without regard for its dangerous side effects. In efforts to help crackdown on this insidious global pollutant, Sri Lanka, as a signatory to the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) Global Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury, which comes into effect in 2013, is taking immediate action against this pollutant.

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Mercury, the substance inside your thermometer, and sometimes even in your old tooth fillings, is a heavy-metal poison. It can enter the body through breathing it in, through eating or directly through skin-contact. Once in the body, it accumulates, eventually causing severe illness or even death. Its effects are most notable as the cause of headaches, and strange behaviour, as the vapours from mercury cause long-term mental problems in humans. In some occupations, handling mercury was a part of the job, and it showed, with members of those occupations being quickly recognized in society through their erratic behaviour, the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, is a classic example of one such occupation, dental workers in schools were another. Artisanal mining for gold and silver, often conducted by individuals to separate the precious metals from their ores also has the danger of mercury exposure. If the weathering of rocks can release mercury, than how much more will the sluicing and mining of the ground (Source: IPEN-An Introduction to Mercury Pollution, 2010).

There are several forms of mercury in nature such as elemental mercury, inorganic mercury compounds and organic mercury compounds (the commonest one: methyl mercury). Elemental mercury carried in the atmosphere is eventually deposited and taken up in bacteria in the aquatic environment and these bacteria convert elemental mercury into methyl mercury that bio accumulates and bio magnifies in the food chains. Inside living organisms methyl mercury makes people more poisonous than the other forms. Therefore, one of the major sources for human intake of mercury is from eating the life forms in those waters. The seafood we eat, which, in addition to being a source of good minerals, also contain this biomagnified mercury – mercury that has accumulated over time in the organism. Minamata disease shows the danger of mercury poisoning, as it occurred in Minamata, Japan in 1956 (Source: UNEP-The Mercury Issue, 2008) that poisoning from methyl mercury in sea food, killed a total about 1,784 people and brought the danger of acute mercury poisoning to the notice of nations around the world.

The problem with heavy-metal toxins, such as mercury, is that once they are in our bodies, they stay there, and continue to build up over long periods, this build up occurs most strongly in fish and other seafood, with the mercury being transferred to us when we eat it. Over time some mercury compounds are removed from the body, but not all, and research is still needed on effective ways for complete removal of mercury that has built up inside the brain, nerves, muscle tissues, thyroid gland, kidney, lungs, eyes and immune system let alone reversing the effects of the metal upon our systems. So take care in eating! (Source: IPEN-An Introduction to Mercury Pollution, 2010).

Another source of mercury poisoning can come from direct skin contact, such as touching exposed mercury, or applying it when it is included in skin-lightning creams, and cosmetics or traditional homemade herbal remedies. If the cosmetics you are using to lighten your skin contain Thiomersal, the trade name Merthiolate, which all act as antifungal and antiseptic compounds, then they contain mercury.

For pregnant mothers, this can be crucial for the health of the baby. If too much mercury is being absorbed through water, food and cosmetic contamination, then the nervous system of the unborn baby can be irrevocably damaged (Source: IPEN-An Introduction to Mercury Pollution, 2010).

Besides headaches and loss of lucidity, another pronounced side-effect is lack of motor coordination being a common sign from exposure to some mercury compounds. The effects of mercury poisoning are varied and range from tremors, loss of memory and thinking being impaired, to sleep disturbance. Stronger exposure can also cause physical illnesses such as chest pain and coughs as well as psychotic reactions such as hallucinations, and even development of suicidal tendencies. Even low-level exposure to mercury over a long time period results in fatigue, loss of memory, mood swings and depression.

The first step to preventing mercury poisoning is being aware of the presence of mercury in products that you use, and carefully choosing products that do not contain mercury. When a non-mercury alternative cannot be found then carefully dispose of the used product.

Surprisingly many common household products contain mercury, including paint, thermometers, thermostats, batteries, electrical switches, pocket calculators and CRTs and even disinfectants – so safely disposing of these products by safely wrapping them up to prevent mercury being spread if they break open, and disposing of them as toxic waste rather than normal waste goes a long way to keeping children and others safe. However, chances are that you are reading this article by mercury based lighting, fluorescent tubing and lighting all contain mercury, making their safe disposal after blowing, of prime importance in ridding the toxin from the environment.

If liquid mercury does get spilt, then removal should be done without touching the mercury, and if it falls onto absorbent materials or clothing then it is strongly advised to discard these kinds of items, as there is no guaranteed way of ensuring all the mercury can be cleaned from the fibers to make the clothing safe. Do not burn anything that contains mercury – the vapours could be inhaled causing exposure. The burning of e-wastes, some computer parts and electronic equipments which contain mercury for example, can also vapourise the mercury contained inside them into a breathable form. It should be remembered that mercury that has built up inside a person over their lifetime is also released into the atmosphere through cremation.

So be aware of where you could be receiving excess mercury from, and take care when disposing of mercury containing products, these are your first and best defenses in keeping yourself, and your family, safe, and helping Sri Lanka to become a world-leader in combatting this pollutant. By helping in the global fight against mercury, you will help lift a major health threat from the lives of hundreds of millions of people, not just your own.

 

Prepared by: Air Resource Management & International Relations/Ministry of Environment

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 11:03