Experts want India to speed up the process of banning mercury in light of the landmark Minamata convention of 2014 for prevention of mercury pollution, while describing the element as “the most lethal chemical known to the human kind in the world today”.

The world focused on the evident health hazards and environmental hazards due to exposure to mercury during the Minamata convention, which strongly advocated ending the demand and supply chain of mercury in a phased manner.

In the convention, 149 countries came together to initiate steps to curb mercury pollution. The signatories, including India, decided to phase out this neuro-toxic element, pledging to address both supply and the demand of mercury. On the supply side, all the mines that had been producing mercury or the secondary sources, from where mercury was acquired, have been closed down. By 2025, all the global mines of mercury are expected to be closed down.

On the demand side, all the products or instruments in which mercury is used have to be phased out by stopping their manufacture.

India, though a signatory to the treaty, is yet to ratify it.

“India has signed the treaty but not ratified it yet. The Parliament has to approve it and the process is on. The treaty comes into effect only when at least 50 countries sign it. We are hoping that to happen in the next one month or so,” said Satish Sinha, associate director, Toxics Link, an environmental NGO, while talking to this newspaper.

Among those who signed the Minamata treaty, the European Parliament recently banned the use of mercury amalgam in the susceptible/vulnerable populations. The group includes children under the age of 12, pregnant and nursing women. 

India has not banned the use of mercury, said Sinha, despite “there having no roadblock as such”. “Toxics Link will be meeting the Ministry of Health and making a representation seeking the ban of mercury,” he said.

Among the countries that signed the treaty, the European Parliament recently banned the use of mercury amalgam in the susceptible/vulnerable populations. The group includes children under the age of 12, pregnant and nursing women.

An expert explained: “Children as a population is very vulnerable to its exposure. It impacts the brain and impairs learning ability. It impairs muscle movement and coordination.”

Experts said the use of mercury in the dental sector is particularly worrisome.

“While mercury is used in various sectors, dental sector is one of its largest users. Dental amalgams consist of almost 50% mercury. So, when a mercury filling is put in the mouth, almost the same amount of mercury gets wasted, which eventually finds way into the environment and the food chain. This can have serious ramifications on human health, and environment, as mercury stays in the environment for long periods of time,” Sinha told this reporter.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern. According to WHO, exposure to mercury—even small amounts—may cause serious health problems. Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

On the environmental impacts of mercury, experts said that “environment hazards are potentially converting to human health hazard. It can go into the food stream, it can go into the water stream, and then it will come back to you. If it goes into the water stream, then it converts into its most toxic form known as methyl mercury. And it contaminates the fishes, and when you eat them then mercury moves up the food chain.”

India does not produce any mercury; it imports it. But experts feel it is time the country switched to alternatives. “There are alternatives. You have digital thermometer. For dental amalgams, you have GI and you have different material available. But students in dental schools are not being given alternative material in their practical classes,” Sinha opined.

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