Mercury On The Rise

Updated: Nov 9 2003, 05:30am hrs
Next time you want to relish fish curry or crab salad, remember you might be biting into mercury-contaminated fish. The Indian coastal areas are significantly polluted with mercury and high levels have been detected in both saline and freshwater fish. India has no comprehensive study linking mercury contamination with health aspects, though.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal. Its compound methyl mercury is a proven neurotoxicant as it damages the developing brain. Studies show that it can cause severe and permanent damage to central nervous systems, lungs and kidneys.

Nevertheless, mercury imports to India have registered a six-fold increase in seven years, reveals data released by the Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence & Statistics, Kolkata.

Says Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), We are rapidly becoming the toxic dumping ground of the worlds mercury. The CSE held a press conference in the capital last week to highlight the issue. However, there is no system in India by which the level of mercury contamination can be detected in fish or food products, says Chandra Bhusan, associate director, CSE.

The Central Pollution Control Board, which monitors industrial pollution has no set standards for monitoring mercury emission in the environment. There is also no precautionary principle in case of mercury.

Though, fish forms a vital part of Indian diet, yet the awareness of mercury contamination in fish and seafoods is close to nil in India. Why is it so Explains Mr Bhushan, Its symptoms are very similar to other emotional problems. So it is very difficult to detect common illness like headache, fatigue, depression and memory loss, which are caused by mercury contamination.

People with too many dental fillings may also suffer from mercury contamination, which is again not easily identifiable. This despite the fact that it can be replaced by silver, gold, ceramic, porcelain, polymer composites, etc.

Mercury is used in a number of industrial applications and products. In India, the major source of mercury contamination are chlor-alkali industries, industrial process in thermal power plants, steel and cement plants, mercury-containing products like thermometers, pesticides, dental amalgam and waste incineration process.

The world is getting rid of mercury plants, predominantly used in chlor-alkali industry, whereas in India we do not have any mandatory requirement to phase out mercury plants, says Ravi Agarwal, executive director, Toxic Links, an NGO.

Even the closing down of the Indian subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch consumer product giant Unilever plant in Kodaikanal, which manufactured thermometers, has not led to any change in government policy on mercury thermometers, says Mr Agarwal. A DCM official adds on the condition of anonymity that mercury cell plants are not illegal, though.

Nevertheless, the governments all over the world are making conscious efforts to phase out mercury from thermometers by using substitutes. like other liquids, gas, electric and electronic sensors. There is clearly a lack of policy initiative in India.

In Delhi mercury thermometers are produced on small scale in residential colonies and workers are handling the substance with bare hands.

The fact that one can buy a jar of mercury from Tilak Bazar in Delhi very easily shows the lack of awareness and unregulated use of mercury in the country, says Mr Agarwal.

Mercury is used as a catalyst in the mercury cell plants. In India the mercury cell plants are very old, so 80-90 per cent mercury used during processing is released in the environment, whereas only 1.2-1.5 per cent is released in Europe. Since the release is high, our load of mercury is high too, adds Mr Agarwal.

India is a hotspot for mercury dumping and is the largest consumer of the substance. This is, however, happening when mercury is completely replaceable, but there is a lack of right government policy, says Mr Agarwal.

The alternatives for mercury are not only eco-friendly, but also cost effective. The mercury cell process can be changed to membrane technology. It may requires higher investment cost for conversion but has lower operational, waste treatment and disposal costs.