Nema secures Shs416m to fight mercury misuse

Residents mine gold in Namayingo District early this year. Miners were said to be using mercury that is detrimental to their health and future generations. FILE PHOTO

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The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has received Shs415.6m to facilitate data finding on mercury use and releases into the environment and its associated impact

Kampala. The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) has received Shs415.6m to facilitate data finding on mercury use and releases into the environment and its associated impact.
This, according to Mr Alex Winyi, a senior environmental assessment officer Nema (mercury desk), will also pave way for the ratification and eventual implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
The Global Environment Facility (DGEF), through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Ground Work-South Africa provided the funding.

According to Mr Winyi, the funding will help the authority conduct a national and ministerial sectors assessments on the challenges and opportunities to implement the convention.
“Mercury is a toxic chemical that requires sound management to minimise its impacts on our health and the environment,” Mr Winyi, said of a two year assessment programme recently at the inception workshop in Kampala.
“It will as well help municipals to manage products containing mercury,” he said, adding that the country lacks proper mercury waste management systems in place.

Dangerous products
Mr Winyi said, currently, there are many products on the market that contain mercury such as dental amalgam, electrical appliances-switches and fluorescent lamps, laboratory and medical instruments-clinical thermometers and barometers and batteries.
Others are antiseptic and antibacterial creams and skin-lightening creams which are rampant on the market.

But the worst misusers of mercury, according to Mr Winyi, are the gold artisan miners.
“These people use bare hands to touch mercury and burn it to get gold, inhaling it in large amounts,” Mr Winyi said.
Through a process called amalgamation (bringing free gold particles into contact with mercury), miners dissolve gold particles into the mercury to gather gold including in its smallest size.
Mercury is widely used by miners because it is relatively easy to access due to porousness of Ugandan borders. Last year, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) intercepted nearly 35 kilogrammes of mercury at the Uganda–Kenya border.

Early this year, in Nakudi village, Banda Sub-county, Namayingo District, at what was supposed to be a sombre moment while burying one of their own, mourners discovered gold as they dag a grave. Thereafter, several miners swamped the district in what was called ‘a gold rush’ but unfortunately according to Mr Winyi, they were using mercury that is detrimental to their health and future children.
“Miners wash their gold mixed with mercury directly into the rivers. This has environmental and health concerns beyond Namayingo District,” he said.

Miners are still using mercury in other parts of the country like in Mubende, Karamoja, and Busia among others.
At the same workshop, Water and Environment minister Ephraim Kamuntu, said if all government agencies work together in gathering information about the impact of mercury, this will ensure adequate and correct quantitative and qualitative data is obtained about mercury and hence its proper management.

“This is the second project that Uganda is undertaking on mercury. The first project Uganda implemented was related to reducing the impacts of mercury without adversely impacting on the well-being of sectors that use mercury added products like dental amalgam in the health sector,” Prof Kamuntu said, in a statement read for him by Under Secretary ministry of Water and Environment, Mr Charles Esmu.

Interventions
World Health Organisation proposes interventions to prevent environmental releases and human exposure including eliminating mercury production and use in mining and industry.
The organisation, on the other hand, proposes promoting use of clean energy sources that do not rely on burning of coal; switching to non-mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers in healthcare; and implementing safe handling, use and disposal of mercury-containing products and waste.

Effects of mercury on humans and environment

Mercury, which can remain in natural environments for years, affects the nervous system and has been proven to be particularly debilitating for unborn babies and children.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mercury exists in various forms including metallic; inorganic (chloride), and organic (methyl- and ethylmercury).
Whatever form it exists, mercury, according to the global health body, has toxic effects to humans including on their nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

Symptoms include sensory impairment (vision, hearing, speech), among others. “It has been estimated that among selected subsistence fishing populations, between 1.5/1000 and 17/1000 children showed cognitive impacts caused by the consumption of fish containing mercury. “Mercury releases in the environment result mainly from human activity, particularly from coal-fired power stations, residential heating systems, waste incinerators and as a result of mining mercury, gold and other metals.
Once in the environment, elemental mercury is naturally transformed into methylmercury that bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish” reads part WHO website on mercury.

Minamata treaty
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.
This convention was a result of three years of meeting and negotiating, after which the text of the convention was ratified by delegates from 140 countries on 19 January 2013.
The convention is named after the Japanese city Minamata.
This naming is of symbolic importance as the city went through devastating incident of mercury poisoning.
The convention was expected to be effected in October after 50 per cent of countries had signed to it but Uganda has up to now not yet ratified it.

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