Sunday, February 27, 2011

In 3 Philippine areas, mercury poisons air, says study

In some places in the Philippines, breathing would be like committing suicide.

The air in some mined-over communities in three provinces, a study presented here said, has been poisoned by one of the earth’s most toxic chemical elements—mercury.

According to the study, released here on Wednesday, levels of mercury vapor in some mining communities in Benguet, Camarines Norte and Palawan were higher by 30 times than levels that are considered safe.

While the presence of a minute amount of mercury in the air is normal, levels of mercury in the air in these places were unusually high.
Lawyer Roberto Gutierrez, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), said his group scanned various parts of the country, including areas near Malacañang, using a portable mercury analyzer between the latter part of 2010 and the early part of 2011.

No detection

Based on its findings, BAN said it believed the government is unable to detect high levels of mercury circulating in the atmosphere, he said.

BAN is a Seattle-based organization behind a campaign to eliminate mercury presence in industries and household items.

The BAN study said mercury vapor was detected in the air even in places where there are no known human activity involving the use of mercury, like Malacañang Palace.

“Mercury vapor was detected in small concentrations even in areas with no known or alleged use of mercury,” the study said.

“President Aquino could be out in the yard of Malacañang Palace smoking and he is already inhaling 7.9 nanograms per cubic meters (npcm) of mercury vapor,” Gutierrez said in the presentation of the BAN report entitled “Chasing Mercury: Measuring Mercury Levels in Air Across the Philippines.”

Mercury is a rare toxic metal that melts into liquid. It has been used for common household items like thermometers and for extracting gold and silver in small-scale mining outfits.

Safe levels

According to Gutierrez, the United States Environmental Protection Agency ranks 900 npcm of mercury vapor as safe. At 10,000 npcm, immediate evacuation of communities is recommended.

In Barangay Malaguit in Paracale, Camarines Norte, the average reading for mercury vapor in the air was 14,275.3 npcm and the highest level was 30,000 npcm, according to the BAN study, quoting results of tests done Nov. 24-25 last year.

Malaguit’s residential area had an average reading of 266.7 npcm of mercury vapor and a maximum reading of 5,516.2 npcm, the BAN study said.

“In mining areas, mercury concentrations increased dramatically during operations when mercury was used,” said Gutierrez. He said dangerous levels of mercury “have been detected even when the operations have terminated.”

The same study said Sitio Pulang-Lupa in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, has as much as 1,488.8 npcm of mercury vapor in the air because it was near an abandoned mine that used to extract mercury, Gutierrez said.

He said while mercury in the air is a natural occurrence, “the highest mercury vapor concentrations were found in sites where mercury was being used or stored.”


High mercury levels in urban areas with no contact with mercury was puzzling, he added.

Lomino Kaniteng, president of Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners Inc. said the BAN findings were not surprising.

In the barracks of workers of pocket miners and mining firm Benguet Corp. in Camp 5 in Itogon, Benguet, the BAN study said tests made from Nov. 21 to 22 last year showed a reading of a maximum 30,000 npcm of mercury vapor in the air and an average of 3,751.8 npcm.

Mercury use is more common in small-scale mining operations, however. Large-scale mining firms abandoned mercury use in favor of cyanide.


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