Nay, this is not about the 1998 action thriller Mercury Rising where Bruce Willis plays an undercover agent out to protect a nine-year-old autistic boy targeted by assassins after cracking a top secret government code. And this is not about Mercury retrograde, which is said to bog us down as it creates computer screw-ups and snarlups in our lives. But while we’re on the subject, did you know that Mercury — the planet that rules our ideas and attitudes so that we can review and revise our life — normally turns retrograde three times a year but this year, it’s four? We had one last Jan. 11 and the next three will be on May 7, Sept. 7, and Dec. 26 (I bet you’ll be marking those dates on your calendar after putting this down).
Well, another kind of mercury, a most harmful one, needs to be reviewed as it poses a health threat to the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people around the world.
UN Undersecretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, talks about the recent world’s environment ministers meeting in Nairobi, Kenya to lift the global health threat posed by mercury.
According to Steiner, the policy framework is the result of seven years of intense discussions spearheaded by UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council (UNEP) and representing the first, coordinated global effort to tackle mercury pollution. It covers reducing demand in products and processes — such as high-intensity discharge vehicle lamps and the chlor-alkali industry — to cutting mercury in international trade. It also includes reducing emissions to the atmosphere, environmentally-sound storage of stockpiled mercury, and the cleaning-up of contaminated sites.
Steiner notes with much concern, “Action is long overdue. Mercury’s impact on the human nervous system has been known for over a century — the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland fame was so-called because hat-makers used the liquid metal to strengthen brims, breathing in the poisonous fumes.”
Now, we know. Even a fantasy fiction has a valuable lesson we can all learn from.
Steiner elaborates on the toxic effects of mercury on the population, which include impaired thyroid and liver function, irritability, tremors, disturbances to vision, memory loss, and perhaps cardiovascular problems.
The UN Undersec. Gen. has a lot of “fish stories” to share. Listen up: “Eating advisories relating to fish consumption such as tuna remain in place in many countries targeted at those at risk including pregnant mothers and babies. In Sweden, for example, around 50,000 lakes have pike with mercury levels exceeding international health limits. Women of child-bearing years are advised not to eat pike, perch, burbot, and eel at all, and the rest of the population only once a week.”
In the US, a study found that about one in 12 (just under five million females) have mercury levels above the level considered safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
In West Bengal, a recent study found fish with mercury levels in excess of food safety limits.
The whales have not been spared, too. Reports, says Steiner, show that mercury levels in Arctic ringed seals and Beluga whales (where the most expensive Russian Beluga caviar comes from) have increased by up to four times over the last 25 years in some areas of Canada and Greenland with implications for communities where marine mammals are eaten.
A big cause for concern among scientists and the NGO Sharkproject these days is the increased consumption of mercury-laced shark meat, a prized delicacy in some parts of the world.
These foods, Steiner points out, contain up to 40 times more mercury — and perhaps a great deal more — than the recommended food safety limits.
But Steiner is quick to add, “The good news is that both Europe and the United States have in recent months backed export bans on mercury with the European Union setting a date of 2011.”
While mercury is ever present in our midst, used as it is in a wide range of products and processes, governments around the world, in cooperation with UNEP, have pinpointed cost-effective, well-proven, and safer alternatives to mercury. “High-intensity discharge lamps for use outside the automobile industry, some liquid crystal display units and certain kinds of plastics production spring to mind,” says Steiner. “Flexibility needs to be shown. But only by setting a clear and unequivocal landscape of a low-mercury future will governments trigger innovation and an ever greater array of cost-effective, alternative products and processes.”
Steiner cites artisanal and small-scale gold mining as a special case, where the victims are among the poorest people in the world. He mentions the island of Mindanao, Philippines, where 70 percent of gold miners may have chronic mercury intoxication. We are not alone. Some 10 million miners and their families may be suffering in fields from Brazil and Venezuela to India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe.
Studies have also found that about one-third of people not directly employed in the industry but living in the area, showed signs of chronic mercury intoxication.
Steiner laments that the alternative to mercury in small-scale mining is really no alternative at all — cyanide.
Mercury (use) rising? Yes, evidence shows that mercury pollution may be on the rise due in part to increased coal-burning in Asia.
Steiner gives the burning facts: “Of the some 6,000 tons of mercury entering the environment annually, some 2,000 tons come from power stations and coal fires in homes. Once in the atmosphere or released down river systems, the toxin can travel hundreds and thousands of miles.”
There’s more’s cause for worry: As climate change melts the Arctic, mercury trapped in the ice and sediments is being re-released back into the oceans and into the food chain.
Steiner concludes with this alarming warning: “No one alive today is free from some level of mercury contamination and the World Health Organization argues there is in the end no safe limit. Thus, prevarication and inaction over the global mercury challenge is no longer an option — we owe it to pregnant women and unborn children everywhere and to artisanal miners and their families. We owe it to anyone who has an interest in a healthier, less polluted world.”
Yes, we owe it to every living creature on earth — now and in the generations to come.- CHING M. ALANO, Philippine Star