High levels of mercury in urban Indians

Print edition : July 05, 2019

RESEARCHERS of the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad (IITH), have found that people living in a city with active coal-fired power plants and consuming local aquatic produce may have higher body levels of mercury. The conclusions are based on a study of amounts of mercury in the hair of over 600 people in three cities in India. This study has been reported in “Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology”.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that is used in industry and consumer products and exists as a natural impurity in ores. It is non-degradable and circulates widely within and between ecosystems. Mercury has adverse effects on lungs and kidneys, and heart diseases.

“In modern times,” pointed out Asif Qureshi of IITH who headed the research work, “the non-occupational exposure of humans to mercury comes from food, especially fish, and rice grown in contaminated fields. Coal-fired power plants are estimated to be the largest emitters of mercury to the atmosphere.” The total mercury emissions in India are estimated to become around 540 tonnes in 2020. “Hair is an excellent indicator of mercury in the body. Hair concentrates mercury and its sampling is non-invasive, making it easy to both measure and correlate to the amount of mercury in the body,” Qureshi added. The survey showed that nearly 5.5 per cent of the people tested had mercury levels above the current reference set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States.

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