A Public Awareness Workshop on Mercury and its Alternatives aimed to sensitise stakeholders on the domestic sources of mercury, the hazards it poses and the best practices which can be adopted to protect the environment and health, was held yesterday at Intercontinental Hotel in Balaclava. The Minister of Social Security, National Solidarity, and Environment and Sustainable Development, Mr Etienne Sinatambou, was present at the opening of the workshop.
In his address, Mr Sinatambou underlined that the main cause of mercury poisoning is due to uncontrolled human activity. Mercury and its derivatives are particularly dangerous as once released in the environment, they can travel long distances through the oceans and the atmosphere, bio-accumulates in microorganisms and bio-magnifies along the food chain, he underlined.
He stated that the international community has been concerned with the dangers of mercury exposure over many years while adding that the Government in Mauritius is also concerned with mercury since we have a fragile ecosystem and limited resources. He added that in the wake of global crises such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, poor management of toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes, preserving our resources is of paramount importance for the welfare of our citizens and environment.
The Minister pointed out that the potential sources of mercury contamination which could affect us are the use of mercury in dental amalgam fillings; use of mercury for recycling of gold dust; exposure to broken mercury-containing products; use of cosmetics having high levels of mercury (e.g. whitening and bleaching creams); and consuming contaminated fish and fish products.
In view of the above, he pointed out that the Government has ratified the Minamata Convention on Mercury in September 2017. The Convention obliges Parties to take a range of actions to address mercury emissions to air and to phase out certain mercury-containing products. The Convention provided us with a guidance to develop the Action plan, taking into account our domestic circumstances. Consequently, we have taken special care to work in close collaboration with the representatives of the government, non-government and private sectors and academia with the assistance of our consultants, he said.
Speaking about dental amalgam, Mr Sinatambou recalled that the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life has already set a general practice since the last 10 years of not using dental amalgam in children below 10 years old and pregnant women. As regards recycling of gold dust, the inventory showed that the amount of mercury used by jewellers has decreased considerably over the years, he added.
As for mercury containing products such as compact fluorescent lights, he highlighted, tubes having European Standards are mainly used where the mercury content is below the thresholds provided under the Convention. The Ministry of Health and Quality of Life has also already removed mercury containing thermometers from use in public hospitals while the Ministry of Education and Human Resources, Tertiary Education and Scientific Research has stopped purchasing mercury-containing thermometers for school laboratories, he said.
Actions to mitigate the risk of mercury exposure
Referring to initiatives taken by Mauritius, the Minister underscored that bold actions have been taken to reduce pollution from mercury. They include: establishment of standards imposing limitations on mercury content in fish and fish products, drinking water and effluent; and importation of batteries containing mercury is prohibited under the Consumer Protection Regulations (1999); classification of mercury and its derivatives as extremely dangerous industrial chemicals under the Dangerous Chemicals Control Act (2004) and control of their import, use and disposal.
To further mitigate the risk of mercury exposure, several actions have been taken. Investment has been made in a high-tech equipment for the National Environmental Laboratory which will assist in undertaking thorough analysis and monitoring of toxic heavy metals, including mercury in the environment. Commissioning of the equipment was completed in 2017 and the laboratory staff have been trained to utilise the equipment.
Furthermore, an Interim Storage Facility for Hazardous Waste is operational since April 2017. The Facility has been set up for the management of hazardous wastes including mercury. Inspections, testing, repackaging and labelling are done prior to collection, storage and subsequent export for disposal at licensed facilities.
The Environment Protection Act (2002) is also being amended to cater for the inclusion of actions and measures to promote sustainable development in the Environment Impact Assessment Reports. The Standards for ambient and stack air quality is also being reviewed to provide a limit for mercury emission from stack as well as ambient air.
Several legislations are also in force in Mauritius such as the Explosives Act which dates back to 1959 and which defines "explosives" as "fulminate of mercury", and prohibits their manufacture unless a permit is granted by the Police Commissioner; the Toys (Safety) Regulations 1994which provide for the protection of toy users against mercury; and the Food Regulations 62 (1999), which restrict, amongst others, mercury in at least 59 items with a maximum permitted proportion of 0.03 parts per million.
The workshop will be followed by a Validation Workshop so as to finalise a National Action Plan which has been prepared by consultants. Mauritius has benefitted from the assistance of the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Development Programme and the Swiss Confederation through the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. The assistance received pertains to the assessment of existing legislation and institutional capacity, the conduct of a detailed mercury inventory, and raising awareness with various stakeholders.