Thursday, February 17, 2011

Toxic Mercury in Air, Growing Concern

Five years to this day marks the tragic mercury spill at St. Andrew’s School in Paranaque that changed the life of a young boy, when he was exposed to toxic mercury vapors that caused him to develop irreversible parkinsonism and nerve damage.

Environmental groups commemorated the event by holding a briefing on the result of a six-month investigation of toxic mercury vapors across the country, entitled “CHASING MERCURY: Measuring Mercury Levels in the Air Across the Philippines” that showed details of the growing mercury pollution. Ban Toxics, Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives, and the EcoWaste Coalition called on the government for immediate and effective action against the toxic threat.

Utilizing a mercury vapor analyzer to detect elemental mercury vapor at concentrations as low as 0.5 nanograms / m3, Ban Toxics, the study author, visited various mercury hotspots and famous landmarks around the country to test the level of mercury in these areas. The study confirmed that mercury air emissions from burning of mercury and its use in large quantities in specific sectors are a major contributor to the mercury levels in air. The study also showed that air emissions travel from one area to another, which widens the area of contamination.

“The mercury that was spilled at St. Andrew’s was just around 50 grams. What we witnessed in the areas we visited are kilos upon kilos of mercury being spilled and burned,” explained Atty. Richard Gutierrez, Executive Director of Ban Toxics. “If 50 grams could cause such trauma to one boy, the implications of setting loose hundreds of tons of this poison to our environment could be catastrophic for all of us.”

The study noted that major emissions come from mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), where mercury is often used in gold processing. Levels as high as 30,000 ng/m3 were detected in gold processing sites and elevated levels of 2,900 ng/m3 were spotted in adjacent areas where mercury was being burned. The group visited three provinces that had ASGM activities, Camarines Norte, Romblon, and Benguet.

Mercury is a dangerous toxin that can cause neurological damage and has been recognized to cause cancer and birth defects in humans and wildlife. Children, the fetus and pregnant women are the most sensitive population to the dangerous effects of mercury. The World Health Organization recognized as far back as 1991 that there is no true safe level for mercury exposure.

Mercury is widely used in society, which increases the probability of exposure from multiple sources. Mercury can be found in:

a) Fluorescent and compact fluorescent lights;

b) Thermometers, sphygmomanometers, barometers and other measuring equipments;

c) Whitening creams and some medical antiseptic;

d) Dental amalgam; and

e) Coal and coal ash.

Among the mercury hotspots that was visited were coal-ash dumpsites in Cebu and municipal waste dumpsites in Metro Manila. Coal-ash from coal-fired power plants that was used as a fill for a building site registered as much as 2,000 ng/m3, while mercury from hundreds of broken CFL lamps in one dumpsite was at 22,000 ng/m3.

“The improper disposal of these mercury containing materials causes the release of mercury to the environment,” stated Thony Dizon, EcoWaste Coalitions’ Program Officer for Chemical Safety. “We caution our countrymen to segregate these toxic wastes, at iwasang basagin o sunugin ang mga mercury containing equipment.”

The study also visited schools and some hospitals and dental clinics to test mercury levels. In these locations mercury levels are generally low. However, mercury levels begin to pick up if mercury-containing equipment are improperly stored or broken. In these circumstances the mercury vapor analyzer picked up at most 6,000 ng/m3 of mercury in the air.

“When a person goes to hospitals and schools, one expects these places to be safe,” explains Gutierrez. “As the tests show, hospitals and schools can be hidden sources of mercury especially if the thermometers and sphygmos that are being used in these facilities still contain mercury and more so if these are improperly stored or leaking.”

Following are some relevant findings based on the results and experiences of the study:

· A background level of mercury already exists in the Philippines, even in areas with no known or alleged mercury use;

· The highest mercury vapor concentrations were found in sites where mercury was actually being used or stored;

· In mining areas, mercury vapor concentrations increase dramatically during operations that utilized mercury;

· Despite regulations from the Departments of Health and Education, many health facilities and schools still have mercury and mercury-containing devices, either in use or improperly stored;

· Mercury-containing wastes (e.g., discarded mercury-containing lamps, broken mercurial thermometers, etc.) are often disposed or mixed with regular trash.

· There is currently no functional national system for the environmentally sound management for mercury-containing wastes and their storage; and

· Proper, careful packing and correct storage techniques make a big difference in reducing the amount of mercury being released into the air by elemental mercury and mercury-containing chemicals and devices.

The study issued several recommendations to address the growing mercury pollution, comprising a mix regulatory and policy tools such as reducing or eliminating man-made mercury sources, enforcement of regulations, and increased information for consumers and awareness raising. It was also noted that consistent and regular monitoring air emissions would be needed especially in mercury hotspots.

Another critical issue in the recommendation is the proper packaging and storage of mercury. The study authors point out that a functional system and procedure, from the barangay level all the way to the national level, for the environmentally-sound collection, management, and storage of mercury, products containing mercury, and mercury-containing wastes needs to be established. Lastly, the study emphasized that international action on eliminating man-made sources of mercury is urgently needed, and the Philippine government has role to play not only in protecting its interests at the international level, but to ensure that developing country interests are protected as well.

“The air pollution from mercury is a needless risk that we impose upon ourselves and to future Filipinos. By taking precautionary steps in avoiding and eliminating use of mercury in society, we also eliminate the risk of further mercury exposure,” explained Manny Calonzo, Co-coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Mercury-free alternatives already exists and available. The solutions are at hand, we as a society need only to collectively grasp it.”


Post a Comment