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Air & Climate  ›› Guidance and Awareness Raising Materials under new UNEP Mercury Programs, Dr R.C.Srivastava ›› Mercury Monitoring, Mercury Waste, Mercury ,Generic, ›› mercury hazards, effects of mercury, mercury toxicity,
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Guidance and Awareness Raising Materials under new UNEP Mercury Programs, Dr R.C.Srivastava  
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Mercury distribution in the environment  has been a focus of scientific attention because of the potential health risks posed by mercury exposure. Never before in the history of mankind has there been such a vast multiplicity of environmental risk factors, nor there  has been such an expression of concern regarding  inherent danger of mercury and its likely impact on diverse aspects on human health. Further organic mercury, mostly methyl mercury (MeHg) the most toxic species is bioaccumulating in the biota and subsequently biomagnified in the aquatic food chain, especially in fish. Given the human health  concern, it is critical and important that awareness programme is launched to educate the populations to the risk and impact of mercury exposure in humans especially potentially vulnerable population viz pregnant women, breast feeding women, the fetus new born and young childern residing in the hot spot area’s of the country and also consequences of MeHg exposure through fish consumption.  There is a strong cultural pattern of fish consumption among coastal people (East, West and Southern coast of India) and among population residing in the plains around industrial sites. Therefore,  their fish consumption pattern must be understood when their mercury exposure through fish consumption is to be evaluated. Certain species of fish are considered safe for consumption. Therefore it is important to account for the factors that may affect mercury exposure. 

Based on the important research findings and key policy development having occurred over past few years there is sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts of mercury and its  compounds to warrant national and international action to reduce the risk to human health and the environment. A consensus has emerged among national and  international authorities to lower the limits of MeHg exposure and / or stronger warning to help sensitive populations to avoid exposure, particularly for pregnant women, breast-feeding women, women who intent to become pregnant and children. These plans are being developed to raise national awareness  of the critical need to sharply reduce human exposure to mercury. 

Although it is well recognized that mercury is wide spread in the Indian environment and that exposure occurs primarily through consumption of fish, information about its distribution in blood system and hair mercury levels in general Indian population is lacking. Hence it has become difficult to fully evaluate the public health significance of mercury problem. Recent evidence has come to light that exposure to mercury is widespread and occurring at levels exceeding health based recommended value among Indian Population. 

Exposure information of women for childbearing age has also become urgently needed, since fetal exposure is known to be a critical window of exposure to the compound. Further the factors  that may affect infant mercury levels due to in utero and / or lactation exposure is lacking. For such data analysis, mothers and their respective infants from the hot spots need to be interviewed (birth history) and biological samples (maternal and infant hair, and breast milk) need to be collected and analyzed. Mercury concentration in breast milk reflects mercury concentration in blood. In the hair, once  mercury is bound, it remains there. Mercury concentration in breast milk therefore reflects most recent exposure, where as mercury concentration in hair is related to long term exposure.  

In addition, questions have to be addressed to resolve the confounding factors that could affect mercury exposure and neurodevelopment outcome and cardiovascular disease in Indian population co-exposed to pesticides. WHO estimates that incidence of pesticide poisoning has doubled during the past ten years. It is alarming that developed countries accounted for only 15% of the worldwide use of pesticides. However over 50% of pesticides poisoning occurred in developing countries and mainly due to easier availability, misuse and improper handling mainly because of lack of awareness. Interestingly no information is available on its role on  the mercury exposure and its correlation with neurodevelopment changes. Other major confounding factors that may affect mercury absorption/accumulation  in Indian context are infections and protein calorie malnutrition. 

Several studies have shown that pesticide exposure in Indian population is much higher compared to Western World. In India pesticides (both organochlorine and organophosphates) are extensively used in spite of their restrictions. In a most recent study from the two cities of  India (Bhopal and Lucknow) it was revealed that through breast milk infants consumed 8.6 times more of endosulfan and 4.1 times HCH more than the average daily  intake (ADI) levels recommended by WHO. Among the various pesticides present in the breast milk, endosulfan concentration (0.363 ± 0.077 mg/lt.) exceeded HCH concentration by 3.5 fold, chloropyrifos by 1.5 folds and malathion by 8.4 folds. The high levels of pesticides in the breast milk is a reflection of consumption of food, drink, vegetables, fish etc. containing excessive levels of these pesticides (Human and Expt. Toxicol. 21, 1-6, 2002 and 22, 73-76, 2003). In another recent study it was estimated that 0.619 mg of endosulfan is the ADI per capita by humans through fish (Int. J. Ecol. Environ. Sci.  27, 117 – 120, 2001). Out of 422 vegetables samples tested, 79% were contaminated with endsoulfan, with 14% showing above MRL (All India Coordinated Res. Project on Pesticide Residue, pp 178, 1999). It is unfortunate that pesticide contamination has been detected even in bottled water and soft drink several fold higher than EC and American norms. (Press Release; Times of India, Feb 4, 2003 and Aug 6, 2003). As a result, Bureau of Indian Standard (BIS) equivalent to EPA, adopted strict EC norms of  pesticides levels in water (0.0001 mg/lit  for individual of pesticides levels in 0.0005 mg/lit, the limit of total pesticide  residue). It is expected that new levels would be effective from January 2004. These informations may help to take action to reduce mercury as well as pesticide exposure, develop awareness of  mercury and pesticide exposure, management of mercury exposure and to develop advisories to prevent exposure  to critical doses of mercury and pesticides during awareness programme as per recommendations of the UNEP, Governing Council Meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya, in Feb. 2003,  The first phase of awareness programme  would be four days Brain Storming  Session on “Nature and Magnitude of Mercury Problem in India” around March 2004 with the objectives of (i) Projecting the  nature and magnitude of the mercury problem in India (ii) Tools and strategies to mitigate mercury pollution that has an impact on human health  and environment and (iii) To suggest immediate and long term national action  as appropriate to reduce man made mercury release. (iv) To develop information network to communicate to public the risk and impact of mercury exposure in humans especially vulnerable population and (v) To adopt policies to prevent illegal trafficking of mercury. The invitees would include representatives from Government (Min. of Environment and Min. of Health), Member of Industries, Non-Government Organizations, WHO, World Bank, UNEP, etc.  

Subsequently, we would develop training materials, guidance document and tool kit on the following topics to organize regional / sub – regional awareness raising workshop sometimes in July 2004 at various hot spots in India in promoting measures to reduce man made mercury  release that have adverse impact on human health and environment: 

1. Nature and Magnitude of the Mercury problem in India. 

2. Identifying and evaluation of populations at risk. 

3. Risk communication and outreach to populations at risk 

4. Developing inventories of mercury uses and release  

5. Potential pollution prevention measures, control technologies and strategies for reducing mercury uses and releases.

6. Increasing awareness and promotion of mercury free products, technologies and processes, or responsible use of mercury, where 


7. Deleterious impact on human health and the environment attributed to mercury and its global capacity for transport and cycling 

8. Initiative to protect human health and environment through measures that will reduce or eliminate release of mercury and its compounds to the environment and establishing national implementation programme.


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