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Reining In Mercury Emissions

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In this report, CHIKA OKEKE writes on the hazardous effect of mercury emissions in the environment and the need for federal government to closely monitor the activities of small scale miners.

It is estimated that about 5,500-8,900 tons of mercury is currently emitted and re-emitted each year to the atmosphere, mostly through increased human activities.

Mercury is a heavy metal that exists in liquid form at room temperature. It is highly toxic and could cause brain and nervous system damage.

It’s mostly used in large quantities to extract gold from ore in artisanal and small-scale gold mining as well as in paints, jewelry, laboratories, cosmetics and pharmaceutical factories including in vaccines as a preservative.

Mercury is also used in dental amalgam, though many dentists have diverted to the use of composite in dental filling given the implications of mercury on human health.

Findings by LEADERSHIP revealed that mercury could be found in products such as electrical switches including thermostats, relays, measuring and control equipment, energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, batteries and dental amalgam.

Aside electrical, mercury is also released through incineration of waste, cement production and other metallurgic activities.

Further investigation revealed that mercury enters into the environment through improper disposal of certain products like auto parts, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, medical products, thermometers, and thermostats.

This is the major reason one of the worst industrial disasters in the world happened in 1932 to 1968, when a fertilizer and later petrochemical company, Chisso Corporation producing acetic acid discharged liquid waste into Minamata Bay in Japan.

Surprisingly, this led to huge calamity where over 50, 000 people suffered various deformities, severe mercury poisoning symptoms or deaths known as Minamata disease.

This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and Shiranui sea, a situation that resulted to mercury poisoning after locals consumed large quantity of the fishes.

The bay which was rich in fish and shellfish, provided the main livelihood for local residents and fishermen from other areas.

Mercury poisoning is a type of metal poisoning that occurred due to exposure to mercury while high level exposure to methylmercury is known as Minamata disease.

The symptoms include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness in the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, difficulties in speech, hearing and seeing.

Regrettably, it has resulted to kidney problems and decreased intelligence, just as the animal effects were so severe in cats that it was named dancing cat fever.

Apart from Japan, the health implication of mercury is largely felt in African countries like Nigeria, though the use of mercury has been outlawed in many developed countries.

Recall that on March 2010, there were reported cases of unexplainable deaths of young children in more than 50 Zamfara villages, which was linked to lead poisoning after thorough investigation.

The lead poisoning occurred due to environmental contamination caused by the smashing and grinding of rocks that contained gold ore and lead.

Children were however intoxicated through inhalation and ingestion of lead particles in dust and soil, consumption of food already contaminated with soil and dust, and drinking from water contaminated with lead.

The outbreak which was considered as the highest lead poisoning involving children claimed the lives of 400 children while over 3000 were poisoned.

Worried by the environmental disaster, federal government in close partnership with humanitarian agencies, provided medical care in the form of chelation therapy and carried out remediation exercise at the site. 

Added to this is efforts by the state government who worked with several agencies to stop gold processing activities in the village centres.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) report, mercury might have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

It considered mercury as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals threatening public health.

The report further indicated that for many years that the Japanese didn’t envisage that the fish were contaminated with mercury, and that it was responsible for a strange disease in the community and other districts.

It added that Minamata disease reached its peak in the 1950s, with severe cases like brain damage, paralysis, incoherent speech and delirium, even as people were exposed to methylmercury after eating fish and shellfish that contained the compound.

While stating that ethylmercury is used as a preservative in some vaccines and does not pose a health risk, the report hinted that methylmercury is harmful.

The director- general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasised that air, water and chemical hazards kills more than 12.6 million people a year.

He noted that most of these deaths occurred in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest toll on health.

Given the quantum of health crisis associated with mercury, the Minimata convention was initiated and named after the Japanese city, Minamata due to the   devastating incident of mercury poisoning.

The Minamata convention on mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.

After three years of negotiation, the text of the convention was approved by delegates representing close to 140 countries on 19th January 2013 in Geneva.

It was also adopted and signed on 10th October 2013 at a diplomatic conference in Kumamoto, Japan.

Moved by hazardous effects of mercury, federal government set up a national steering committee to pilot the implementation of the national action plan on mercury use in the Nigerian Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining sector (ASGM).

The minister of environment, Ibrahim Usman Jibril maintained that human activities largely increased the concentration of mercury in our environment, adding that the magnitude of its expose to the environment would adversely impact on human health as a result of its toxicity to the nervous systems.

He observed that Nigeria lacked well-developed large-scale gold mining sector and artisanal and small-scale miners to carry out large scale mining in the country.

The minister said, “As a result, preliminary inventory of mercury releases in Nigeria was carried out by the federal ministry of environment in 2012 using the UNEP Toolkits for identification and qualification of mercury releases where level 1 showed that ASGM processing in Nigeria is more than insignificant”.

This he noted led Nigeria to apply and receive approval for development of the plan, saying that the national steering group would provide guidance and technical support for effective implementation of the project activities.

He recalled that Nigeria signed the convention in 2013 while the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved the ratification of the convention in April 2017 that entered into force on 16th August 2017.

In his contribution, the minister of health, Dr Isaac Folorunso Adewole asserted that methyl mercury being an organic compound is accumulated in the food chain particularly in fish and sea food products.

Methyl mercury is the cause of subtle neurological impairments when ingested at even low to moderate levels, particularly during the prenatal and early childhood periods.

The minister stated that discharges and emissions of mercury and lead is one of the leading causes of infant child mortality and severe mental disorder.

Adewole added, “We are aware that the toxicity impact of ASGM permeates the body through inhilation which is distributed to the brains, lungs, skin and other organs of the body resulting in respiratory failure, renal failure, conception implications, severed brain developmental outcomes, youth restiveness, memory loss, epilepsy, cancers of sorts and death”.   

The special assistant technical to the permanent secretary ministry of health, Mr Ifom Bassey who spoke on behalf of the minister assured that the ministry is working to eliminate the effects of mercury on health and the entire environment including eliminating the hytopegenic emissions and releases of mercury in line with the agreements and techniques of the Minimata convention.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is leading and facilitating the introduction of clean technologies and policy reform to minimize the use and discharges of mercury.

It also promotes Best Available Technologies (BAT) and Best Environmental Practices (BEP) through increased awareness, capacity building and technology transfer.

The representative of UNIDO headquarters, Vienna-Austria, Ms Rodica Ivan commended the federal government for setting up a national steering committee to pilot the implementation of the national action plan on ASGM.

Ivan stated that countries that have signed under the Minamata convention, which she described as the latest chemicals management convention with the objective to reduce or possibly eliminate the effect of mercury on environment, are expected to develop action plan on mercury.

She hinted that the project would look at building comprehensive analysis of the ASGM sector and strategise for formalisation, sustainable financing, gender and alternative technologies to mercury for the gold mining sector.

Ivan assured that UNIDO is examining the health effects on miners and host communities and environmental degradation.



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