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ISLAMABAD: Environment experts, industrialists and policymakers at a workshop on Friday were unanimous that controlling sources of mercury pollution or emissions and enhanced public education about its impacts can effectively help minimise the toxic chemical’s exposure to human health and environment.

“Making Pakistan mercury free is not possible without tackling the sources of toxic mercury. It will require stringent policy, legal and public advocacy and awareness measures,” said Hammad Shamimi, the joint secretary international cooperation at the Ministry of Climate Change.

Speaking as chief guest at the concluding session of the three-day national mercury toxicity assessment workshop, the official assured the participants of the ministry’s strong commitment to work with the environmental, health, education and industrial sectors to eliminate the sources of mercury contamination.

Enhanced public education can help minimise toxic chemical’s exposure to human health and environment, experts say

The event was organised by the Ministry of Climate Change in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) under its project, ‘Development of Minamata Initial Assessment in Pakistan.’

Adopted in Oct 2013 in Kumamoto, Japan, and ratified by 98 countries, including Pakistan, the convention comprises various mercury-control actions for its signatory countries such as a ban on new mercury mines, phasing out of existing ones and phasing down of mercury use in a number of products and controlling emissions to air and release to land and water.

UNEP Programme Officer Shunichi Honda said mercury was a global pollutant. There are now calls within these countries and from external stakeholders to manage it effectively to protect human health and environment from its debilitating effects.

Dr Honda said Pakistan was taking measures in collaboration with relevant government and non-governmental departments, industry and academia to make the country mercury free.

Ministry of Climate Change Deputy Secretary Mureed Rahimoon said the project aimed at strengthening the baselines on mercury management besides developing national introducing national mercury management plans.

The participants were informed that mercury poisoning referred to toxicity from mercury consumption. Mercury is a type of toxic metal that comes in different forms within the environment. The most common cause of mercury poisoning is from consuming too much methyl mercury which is linked to eating seafood.

They were also informed that the high level of mercury presence was found at hospitals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi which posed serious risk to the lives of patients and other visiting people and surrounding environment.

Explaining health hazards of the mercury toxicity, Assistant Professor Department of Community Health Sciences at Aga Khan University (AKU) Dr Asad Afridi said: “Neurologically, it can cause depression, anxiety, resulting in tremors in the body. It can make you hyperactive or it can give you chronic fatigue. More often, mercury poisoning builds up over time. However, a sudden onset of any of these symptoms could be a sign of acute toxicity.”

He said small amounts of mercury were present in everyday foods and products which may not affect the health. Mercury itself is naturally occurring but the amount in the environment has been on the rise from industrialisation. The metal could make its way into soil and water and eventually to animals such as fish.

Dr Afridi said common symptoms of mercury beyond the safe limits in human bodies included anxiety, depression, irritability, memory problems, numbness, shyness, tremors, hearing and speech difficulties, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, nerve loss in hands and face trouble walking and vision changes.

Former director general Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Dr Samiuz Zaman called for the need to reduce mercury in compact florescent lamps and adopt technology to minimise the impacts of mercury in the air, water and soil.

Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2018