Thinking out aloud: Mercury in our environment!

Thinking out aloud: Mercury in our environment!
Source: Ghana | | Kwadwo Nyarko
Date: 15-04-2019 Time: 01:04:19:pm

I watched a documentary on TV on the effect galamsey was having on the environment. In this documentary, I saw one of the miners holding mercury in his hands. My thoughts drifted to the harmful effects of mercury and lack of knowledge or refusal to acknowledge it by our miners. The first time I had insightful knowledge on the effects of mercury on humans and other living things was when I visited Minamata Bay in Japan in the early 2000s. As a medical professional, I knew about the effects of heavy metal poisoning, but it didn’t really stick with me as I had not experienced much of it in my practice.

However, following my visit to Minamata, and having been tested for mercury, it really had a lasting impression on me. (Thank God, no mercury was found in my hair) With the issue of illegal mining and the use of mercury, my visit to Minamata keeps coming back to me. Do we really understand the effects improper use of mercury have on our bodies? Illegal miners holding mercury in their bare hands? Inhaling mercury vapor (its hot in our part of the world and thus makes mercury evaporate easily)?

What is Mercury? Mercury occurs naturally on the earth, it is found in the air, water and soil. It exists in three forms, elemental, inorganic and organic mercury. Elemental mercury is liquid at room temperature and is released into the air as a vapour by natural processes. These different forms vary in their degree of harmfulness to the human body. It may be released into the environment through natural occurrences such as volcanic activity. The activities of man also release mercury into the environment, examples being mining for gold and mercury, industrial processes, from coal power plants etc.

Mercury released into the environment may be transformed into organic mercury (methylmercury) and this can accumulate in fish. Let’s bear in mind that cooking does not eliminate mercury from the fish. Mercury is also found in some skin lightening creams. Exposure to Mercury. Individuals may be exposed to mercury from eating contaminated fish, using some skin lightening creams, from mining activity or industrial processes to name a few. The effects of mercury are determined by the type of mercury one is exposed to, the duration of exposure, the amount exposed to, the age of the individual and the path of entry into the body; that is whether it is breathed in, enters by eating or through the skin. Exposure to elemental and inorganic mercury usually occurs through occupational activities whilst that of organic occurs through the diet.

Health effects of Mercury According to WHO exposure to even small amounts has serious effects on individuals and affects babies in the womb. Exposure of the pregnant woman to mercury may result in abnormal development of the unborn baby. Mercury affects the brain, the lungs, kidney, the immune system, skin and eyes especially in individuals who are chronically exposed. Elemental mercury and methylmercury are specifically toxic to the nervous system both central and peripheral. Inorganic mercury may affect the kidneys if ingested. It also may be corrosive to skin and eyes when it comes into contact with them. Now and the near future Pollution of the environment needs to be looked at seriously now and in the immediate future.

The environment is being destroyed with both land and waterbodies affected. The fish and crops we consume from these polluted water bodies and lands will expose us all to mercury. It will be selfish of anyone to think that it will only affect those in the immediate environment. Let us not say that I care less for the future generation. There are safer methods such as gravity methods that can be used in small scale mining. These methods should be adopted without compromise. Let those charged with the responsibility, ensure that our land, waterbodies, food and the total environment remain healthy and sustainable for the future, bearing in mind the sustainable development goals. Action must be taken now.

Catherine Dawson-Amoah Public Health/Occupational Health Physician.