India is Dumping Ground for Toxic Mercury
Ranjit Devraj
Inter Press Service
November 5, 2003

NEW DELHI: Thanks to its lax laws, India continues to import toxic mercury and has now replaced the United States as the biggest consumer of the liquid metal and its compounds, activists here say.

''We are rapidly becoming the toxic dumping ground for the world's mercury,'' declared Sunita Narain, director of the non-government organisation the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Citing figures released by the Directorate of General of Commercial Intelligence (DGCI) the centre said imports of metallic mercury into India have more than doubled between 1996 and 2002, from 254 tonnes a year to 531 tonnes annually.

The figures for import of organo-mercury compounds, including pesticides and biocides were even higher having jumped from 0.7 tonnes to 1812 tonnes during the same period.

Going by DGCI data, India now consumes 50 percent of global production of mercury compounds and processes 69 percent of it. This is at a time when most countries are moving out of mercury-based processes and products and overall global production of mercury is declining.

In contrast, the U.S. till recently the world's biggest user of mercury has reduced annual consumption to 372 tonnes annually and ensures that the metal does not pollute the environment through rigorous application of such laws as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The sale of various mercury-containing products such as thermometers, dairy manometers, toys, shoes, automobile switches and thermostats have been prohibited while state-sponsored collection programmes for thermometers and dental inventories are effectively in place - a scenario unimaginable in India where garbage segregation is simply not followed.

Mercury compounds are toxic and methyl mercury, in particular, is a dangerous neurotoxicant that damages brain development and causes permanent damage to the nervous system, lungs and kidneys and poses a grave danger to unborn babies.

Commented Ravi Aggarwal, director of Toxic Links, another major environmental group that has been fighting the mercury menace: ''These are problems that the government should be looking into on its own, rather than leaving it environmental groups.''

Over the last seven years, European exporters including Spain, Britain, Russia, Italy as well as the United States have managed to sell - critics say dump -- 3,000 tonnes of mercury to India.

Activists say this is happening because of tougher laws in Europe, which has decided to phase out all its mercury-based plants. It needs to export about 15,000 tonnes of mercury to countries like India, which have weak laws and unsuspecting publics.

In January 2001, an international coalition helped Indian environmentalists and a dockworkers' union to prevent a defunct U.S. company based in Maine from unloading large mercury stockpiles in the country. But since then, vigilance has slackened.

''The world is phasing out mercury and we are phasing it in,'' Narain pointed out.

''India has now become the prime destination for the sellers of death and disease,'' said Chandra Bhushan, the CSE associate director who led the mercury studies.

Mapping the 'mercury hotspots' in the country, CSE found that coastal areas off the port cities along the Indian peninsula's vast coastline -- Mumbai, Kolkata, Cochin, Karwar and Chennai -- were severely polluted and that fish stock in these areas were heavily contaminated.

In most cases, the contamination level in fish exceeded the 0.5 parts per million total mercury regulation. On the west coast, particularly off Mumbai, it was 1.6 times higher than the permissible level.

''High levels of mercury has been detected in fish along the coastal areas both in fresh water and saline water,'' said the CSE report, which is based on studies by the Central Pollution Control Board and state pollution control boards.

Mercury contamination has also been discovered in fish in the Yamuna river, which flows past Delhi, and in vegetables grown along its banks.

According to the CSE, clinical thermometres and other medical devices account for up to 10 tonnes of mercury consumed in India each year. Batteries, lamps and electrical devices consume another 26 tonnes.

But the industries producing these could only account for two percent of the wastewater they released into the environment, the centre reported.

The lack of enforcement of laws has allowed India to emerge as major recycler of global waste. This includes the highly pollutive ship-breaking industry, which continues off the coast of western Gujarat state in spite of adverse reporting in the media and activism by groups such as Toxic Links and Greenpeace.

In the nineties, the CSE successfully campaigned to get the state government in Delhi to phase out toxic fuels like diesel and in its place require all buses and taxis to use the environmentally-friendly compressed natural gas (CNG).

The centre is also known for its August findings that confronted the cola giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola with evidence that their bottled products contained unacceptably high levels of pesticides.

The government has since been compelled to institute an all-party, parliamentary inquiry into the CSE's allegations, and the results are expected before the year ends.

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