Dawdling actions and government: Mercury, human health and the environment

“I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defence abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend?”
Robert Redford

No superintendent of a hospital or manager of an industrial operation wants to be subjected to massive pressure from communities and the media linking their processes to health effects and contamination of the environment from toxins such as mercury. However, the last few decades has seen pressure sustained by communities globally, linking many industrial processes and medical waste incinerations to resulting deaths from mercury contamination linked to damaged brain cells, lung failure and birth defects. It is a fact that as long as industries and polluting technologies continue to be placed in communities, poisonous toxins such as mercury will continue to be released into the environment posing harmful effects. The impacts are born by people, usually the poor, and the hidden costs like health care are passed onto the public.

South African civil society has long been calling on the government to properly monitor and regulate industrial activities and implement cleaner systems for production. I have been disappointed to hear of processes in South Africa both proposed and past that continues to affect human health and the environment through mercury pollution.

New Castle incinerator
It has been disappointing to hear of a proposal by Iscor to establish a medical waste incinerator in Newcastle. This is despite the fact that our KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health in 2002 took a policy decision to phase out incineration at its government institutions and is a party to the Stockholm Convention that targets mercury for phase out as one of the “dirty dozen”.

Many hospitals have on-site incinerators and incinerate waste, which contains mercury at “no cost”; therefore sometimes there is no incentive to rigidly segregate waste.

The problem of health care waste and mercury is a contentious one since firstly no segregation of waste is being carried out at hospitals and mercury is disposed of together with the health care waste. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one in 10 women in the U.S. already carry enough mercury in their blood to pose a threat of neurological damage to the foetus. The U.S. EPA ranks the health care sector as the fourth-largest source of mercury air emissions due to their contribution to medical waste incinerators.

Thor Chemicals
It has been over a decade now since the Thor Chemicals plant in Cato Ridge was shut down by the government after numerous workers in 1994 were found to have contracted mercury poisoning and two had subsequently died.

So far, the government has contracted the services of specialist waste consulting engineers who will design and oversee all the cleanup activities at Thor on behalf of the department. The engineers have already started preliminary work on the site, which includes an investigation into exactly what is there, i.e. they are preparing a detailed inventory of the stored waste. This is being done with a view to proposing the best way of dealing with the waste. An environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is under way.

What has been disappointing has been that it has taken government such a long time to take action on this issue. The Wheels of justice with regard to holding Thor accountable and protecting the health of people and the environment has been slow.


Mercury- From a series of secret space probes that were sent to planet Mercury by government administrations that have kicked up clouds of “mercury dust,” which have now drifted back to earth.

Thor Chemicals – incineration – national government and cement kilns

(While the government decides what to do with the waste, Summerton says the area around the closed reprocessing plant remains contaminated. He blames the ministry of the environment for not trying to find out from workers where waste was buried so that it can be cleaned up. )
– The government is dragging its feet while it should be asking workers where the mercury waste was dumped,” says Summerton. “When is the government going to do something about this?”

Fact Sheet: Mercury and safe disposal practices

What is Mercury?
Mercury is a silver-white liquid metal that occurs naturally in small amounts in the environment. The symbol used to describe mercury is Hg. It can change easily from solid to liquid to gas, allowing it to circulate in the atmosphere and the environment. Mercury combines with other elements, such as chlorine, sulphur, or oxygen, to form inorganic mercury compounds or “salts,” which are usually white powders or crystals. Mercury also combines with carbon to make organic mercury compounds. The most common one, methylmercury, is produced mainly by microscopic organisms in the water and soil. More mercury in the environment can increase the amounts of methylmercury that these small organisms make.
Where can Mercury be found?

Because Mercury remains liquid at room temperature, it is used in many consumer products. It can be found in hospitals and homes and is used in barometers, blood pressure instruments, thermometers, and other pressure sensing instruments. Batteries containing mercury are used in some small electronic devices like watches and children’s toys. Mining sites, Power plants, incinerators and some industries release mercury into the environment causing air and water pollution. Dental amalgam tooth fillings are also a source of mercury exposure. Metallic mercury is used to produce chlorine gas and caustic soda. Mercury salts are sometimes used in skin lightening creams and as antiseptic creams and ointments.

What happens to mercury when it enters the environment?
• Inorganic mercury (metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds) enters the air from mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste, and from manufacturing plants.
• It enters the water or soil from natural deposits, disposal of wastes, and volcanic activity.
• Methyl-mercury may be formed in water and soil by small organisms called bacteria.
• Methyl-mercury builds up in the tissues of fish. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.

How can you be exposed to Mercury?
Mercury exposure can occur by breathing vapours, by direct skin contact or by eating food such as fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury and by drinking water contaminated with mercury. Mercury vapours are readily absorbed by the lungs as a result of exposure to breathing vapours in air from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels. Mercury can enter the body through the skin, especially a wound or cut.

What are health problems associated with exposure to Mercury?
Health problems caused by Mercury depend on the amount that has entered your body, how it entered your body, how long you have been exposed to it, and how your body responds to it. The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Methylmercury and metallic mercury vapours are more harmful than other forms because more mercury in these forms reaches the brain. Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing the fetus. Effects on brain functioning may result in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.

Short-term exposure to high levels of metallic mercury vapours may cause effects including lung damage, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, increases in blood pressure or heart rate, skin rashes, and eye irritation
Children are more susceptible to mercury poisoning than adults because their brains are not yet fully developed. Exposure to small amounts of mercury over a long period of time may cause negative health effects. These include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. The foetus of pregnant women can also be damaged.

The symptoms of mercury include
• Impairment of vision
• Disturbances in sensations (prickling feeling, numbness) usually in the hands and feet and sometimes around the mouth
• Lack of co-ordination of movements such as writing
• Impairment of speech, hearing and walking
• Muscle weakness
• Skin rashes
• Mood swings
• Memory loss and mental disturbances

Mercury poisoning accidents
On March 2001, residents of a Vancouver apartment block were evacuated from their suites after mercury poisoning killed one of their neighbours. The cleanup crew found mercury in a dentist apartment from which mercury vapours had wound their way up plumbing and ventilation shafts to the top floor of their three storey building.

In 1996, a United States cancer researcher spilt mercury on her hand. The compound soaked through her rubber glove and into her skin. A few months later, she began losing her balance and having trouble speaking and hearing. Ten months after the accident she was dead.

In June 2001, Dewey police had found the mercury that had contaminated an apartments carpet had left a child in critical condition. The 23-month-old toddler suffered from poisoning because she crawled and played on the contaminated carpet and breathed the fumes.

In 1993, the British-owned company Thor Chemicals, the world’s biggest mercury recovery plant situated in Cato Ridge, Natal, appeared before a magistrate court on charges of “culpable homicide”. They were charged in British courts with the murder of three employees who had died from mercury poisoning.
In 1982, a suit was filed in the Japanese Supreme Court against chemical maker Chisso Corp for pouring tonnes of mercury compounds since the 1930s into Japan’s Minamata Bay. Since the early 1950s, hundreds of Japanese from the Minamata Bay area have died after eating mercury-tainted fish. Others suffered spasms and blurred vision, and babies of poisoned mothers were born with gnarled limbs.

Other examples of mercury poisoning are the Iraqi poisoning events where wheat treated with a seed dressing containing organic mercury compounds were used for bread. Also, new research has shown that methylmercury can be released directly from municipal waste landfills (Lindberg et al, 2001) and sewage treatment plants (Sommar et al, 1999).

How can you prevent mercury spills and exposure to mercury?
Mercury-containing products should be replaced with safer alternatives such as electronic devices. Mercury containing items such as fluorescent bulbs and old electronic switches should be recycled instead of thrown into the household trash.

Carefully handle and dispose of products that contain mercury, such as thermometers or fluorescent light bulbs. Do not vacuum up spilt mercury, because it will vaporise and increase exposure. If a large amount of mercury has been spilt, contact your health department. Teach children not to play with shiny, silver liquids. Properly dispose of older medicines that contain mercury. Keep all mercury-containing medicines away from children. Pregnant women and children should keep away from rooms where liquid mercury has been used. Learn about wildlife and fish advisories in your area from your public health or natural resources department

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