Excessive burning of mercury-added products doubles mercury emissions to the atmosphere every year, international non-government organizations (NGOs) warned on Thursday.
The NGOs, in a report that it launched, said that controlled and uncontrolled uses of the mercury-added products call for globally coordinated actions to phase out the manufacture, sale and use of such products.
“Based on this report’s findings, we believe it is important to recognize that the burning of products containing mercury is much more significant than previously suspected,” said Michael Bender, the director of the Mercury Policy Project.
“Our review shows that burning mercury product wastes contributes at least two times more mercury emissions to the global atmosphere than previously thought,” he added.
Based on report entitled “Mercury Rising: Reducing Global Emissions from Burning Mercury-Added Products,” products to which mercury is intentionally added, or “mercury-added” products, include thermometers, other medical devices such as blood-pressure cuffs, laboratory chemicals, batteries (particularly button cells), dental amalgams, certain electrical switches (in a variety of products such as thermostats and pumps), paints and, more recently, energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, or bulbs.
The report explained that some 1,400 to 1,900 tons of mercury (or about 50 percent of global mercury consumption) are consumed in the manufacture of such products every year, and much of this mercury ends up in the waste stream.
“When any waste containing mercury is burned, most of the mercury is vaporized during the combustion process. Depending on the nature of any air pollution-control devices, some portions of the mercury are emitted to the atmosphere, and the remainder is retained in the incinerator ashes and/or other combustion residues,” it said.
“The burning of certain fractions of municipal, medical and other wastes is, therefore, a source of atmospheric mercury emissions, which eventually return to the earth through rain or dry deposition. Some of this mercury, especially after transformation into a more biologically available form such as methylmercury, typically finds its way into the food chain, contributing especially to the health risk of eating contaminated fish,” the study added.
On the rise in Asia
The study said that while atmospheric emissions are finally on the decline in North America and most of Europe, they continue to increase in Asia and Africa.
Zero Mercury Working group, which was formed by the European Environmental Bureau, said in its website that mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, especially to the developing nervous system. They are also harmful to ecosystems and wildlife populations. Methylmercury is a well-documented neurotoxicant, which may in particular cause adverse effects on the developing brain.
Methylmercury compounds are considered possible carcinogenic to humans, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Furthermore, inhalation of elemental mercury vapor results in symptoms such as tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes and headaches. Kidney and thyroid may be affected, the report said.
“The report underscores the harmful environmental and health impacts posed by incineration or burning. It is time to recognize that combustion of mercury-added products in incinerators, landfill fires and open burning of domestic waste is a significant contributor of mercury and other toxics to both local and global ecosystems,” Gigie Cruz-Sy of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives explained.
The report also showed the magnitude of emissions in East Asia and Southeast Asia because of landfill fires and open burning of domestic waste. These observations, it noted, reflect a combination of significant open burning, especially in rural areas, a large quantity of products containing mercury in the region and very low recycling rates.
“We urge countries to take immediate steps to stop incineration as a method of waste disposal, including mercury burning practices, and move expeditiously toward safe, just, sustainable and more environmentally-sound alternatives,” said Richard Gutierrez of Ban Toxics.
The report recommends that the United Nations Environment Program, at its February meeting in Nairobi, establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the purpose of negotiating a free-standing legally binding instrument on mercury.
— Ira Karen Apanay, Manila Times