Lack of safeguards leave Indians vulnerable to mercury

Mercury is fast becoming a significant environmental and health concern in India as lack of controls and understanding mean a huge number of people are coming into contact with the poisonous liquid metal.

According to research carried out by Delhi-based campaigners Toxic Link almost half of the pupils and students in grammar schools and colleges had played with the metal in their science lessons, with a remarkable 8% of them inhaling it out of curiosity.

Mercury is highly toxic and causes brain damage as well as harming internal organs.

But due to a lack of regulation and limited knowledge of the dangers, India is fast emerging as a global hotspot for the semi-legal trade of the hazardous material.

Waste-pickers – those who make their living from salvaging tradable materials from other people’s rubbish – and ad hoc recycling companies that exist below the official radar are, according to Toxic Link, coming to agreements with those who can supply the metal, then selling it on at a mark up.

Often it is transported in woefully dangerous conditions, in open topped plastic containers or even in plastic bags.

“Waste-pickers and the recycling community that trades in this metal have very sketchy information about the toxicity and threat,” said a spokesman for Toxic Link.

“Despite the risks involved, the informal sector finds a means of turning the poison into a livelihood.

“Mercury is never a found item, so to say. Even waste pickers buy it, informally in small quantities.

“Often, it is bought from hospitals.”

According to the report the European Union provides the bulk of the mercury imported by India.

In the past, the biggest consumers of mercury were the nations in the industrialised West but as awareness of the dangers has increased, so has a reluctance to use it.

And while the West phases out the toxin from its own manufacturing and the EU is set to ban its export by 2010, mercury remains a popular material in the developing countries of the East.

The problem is exacerbated by mercury’s role in Hindu myth and culture. Quicksilver, known as Parad, is seen as the seed of the god Shiva and is attributed religious and medicinal properties, making it sought after by devotees who have not been educated about the potential dangers.

As well as a serious threat to human health, mercury raises environmental concerns as it works its way into watercourses, poisoning fish which in turn poison those which prey on them.

As it works its way up the food chain it causes damage to uncountable species, leading to mortality, disruption of fertility, slower growth or abnormal behaviour.

Sam Bond

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