Over the years, Bangladeshi stomachs have got accustomed to so many different polluting agents like 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 those products, which release mercury into both land and air.
Against the backdrop, the Department of Environment with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and technical assistance by the United Nations 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 2018 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 32,660 kg per year.
Of the amount, 44 percent comes from waste incineration and open waste burning, 20 percent 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; 8 percent from informal dumping of general waste and other sources.
Most of the mercury is released into air (55 percent) and then into water (13 percent).
“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 to air and water,” Tanvir Ahmed, civil engineering professor of Buet and also the team leader of the study, told The Daily Star yesterday.
“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, 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.
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 2020 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 European Union 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, Professor at the Department of Soil, Water & Environment of University of Dhaka, said soil is getting polluted and through soil it is coming into human body, animal body and food chain.
“The way soil is being polluted, it will take revenge when the contamination will go beyond limit. And it is happening in Bangladesh as we see various heavy metals are found in food items and human body.”