Over the years, Bangladeshi stomachs have gotten accustomed to so many different polluting agents such as fertiliser, melamine, formalin and carbide. And the list goes on and on.
The most recent addition to this is heavy metals and a member of this family is mercury.
An environment department study says mercury, found in thermometers, makeup items such as mascara and skin whitening creams, and used as a regular dental amalgam, has made it to our food.
Already, it has a worrisome presence in the air we breathe.
Yet Bangladesh has no specific guidelines regarding the management of mercury in products, or how to safely manage the use of products and equipment that have mercury.
For example, around 25.64 million CFL bulbs and 2.56 million tube lights were sold in Bangladesh last year and people have hardly any idea how to dispose of the products, which release mercury into both land and air.
Against the backdrop, the Department of Environment, with the support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and technical assistance by the UN Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), has estimated mercury emission in Bangladesh for the first time ever.
The department conducted a mercury study in one year since June last year using UN Environment’s “Toolkit for Identification and Quantification of Mercury Releases” to identify the sources of emission and release as well as to determine the amount emitted from or released by the various sources.
According to the study, the total mercury release in Bangladesh is approximately 32,660kg per year.
Of the amount, 44 per cent comes from waste incineration and open waste burning, 20 per cent from use and disposal of products like thermometers, paints with mercury preservatives or pigments, laboratory and medical equipment, polyurethane produced with mercury catalysts and switches.
Eight per cent comes from informal dumping of general waste and other sources.
Most of the mercury is released into air (55 per cent) and then into water (13 per cent).
“The problem is that we do not have any disposal mechanism. We are littering mercury-added products here and there and then it is going into the air and water,” Tanvir Ahmed, a civil engineering professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and also the team leader of the study, told the Daily Star on Monday.
“We have to act now otherwise a big danger is waiting for us.”
Mercury, a heavy, silvery white metal, is a liquid at room temperature and can evaporate easily.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no safe level of mercury exposure and everyone is at risk when mercury is released without safeguards.
Children, especially the newborns, and pregnant women are most vulnerable. Mercury can produce a range of adverse human health effects, including permanent damage to the nervous system.
‘We all have to act now’
Bangladesh is a deltaic plain crisscrossed by many rivers and remains extremely vulnerable to mercury contamination from uncontrolled dumping of mercury along with medical, industrial, electronic waste into the waters and soil, uncontrolled coal burning in brick kilns, the fish-dependent protein diet of the population, the cement and paint industries, and through the use of mercury-added products and medical applications of mercury.
Bangladesh is a signatory to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The goal of that treaty, signed on October 10, 2013, is to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. For Bangladesh to meet its future obligations under the treaty, a number of actions need to be undertaken.
Masud Iqbal Md Shameem, project director of Minamata Initial Assessment of Department of Environment (DoE), said the government has to ban some mercury products and phase out some mercury products by next year and as part of that the assessment was done.
“Undoubtedly the mercury pollution is a threat to environment and human health. We have just assessed the mercury pollution in Bangladesh but yet to measure the impact of pollution. It is a new danger and we all have to act now,” he said.
The EU banned mercury-containing batteries, thermometers, barometers, blood pressure monitors, and cosmetics. Mercury is also no longer allowed in most switches while energy-efficient lamps using mercury technology are only permitted on the market with reduced mercury content.
Harunor Rashid Khan, a professor at the University of Dhaka’s Department of Soil, Water & Environment, said soil is getting polluted and through soil is entering humans, animals and the food chain.
“The way soil is being polluted, it will take revenge when contamination goes beyond the limit. It is happening in Bangladesh, as we see various heavy metals are found in food items and the human body.” THE DAILY STAR (BANGLADESH)