Experts say exposure to even the smallest amount of mercury may be a threat to the development of a foetus and in its early life.
Mercury, which is considered one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern by the World Health Organisation, is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil.
According to the WHO, two major groups of people are more sensitive to the effects of mercury, noting specifically that foetuses are the more susceptible to developmental effects due to mercury exposure.
The global health body noted that mercury exposure in the womb could result from a mother’s consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish, which affects a baby’s growing brain and nervous system.
“The primary health effect of methylmercury, a type of mercury found in household products, is impaired neurological development. Therefore, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor and visual-spatial skills may be affected in children, who were exposed to methylmercury as fetuses, ”WHO noted.
The UN body added that factors which determine whether health effects occurred and their severity, include the type of mercury concerned, dose, age or developmental stage of the person exposed, the duration of exposure; the route of exposure – whether inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact.
A Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics, Department of Biological Sciences, Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State, Christian Happi, said mercury is one of the most toxic substances capable of causing nervous problems including skin reactions.
The Director, African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Disease at Redeemer’s University, said there is no doubt that mercury could trigger many health challenges based on its toxicity.
Also, a Public Health Physician at the Federal Medical Centre, Asaba, Dr. Ovie Efekodo, said Mercury, which is found in many products like batteries and measuring devices such as thermometers and barometers, is harmful to humans.
He said the toxicity level of mercury cannot be underestimated and listed electric switches, amalgam used for dental fillings, skin-lightening products and cosmetics products, among others products that have it.
Dr. Efekodo advised people to be mindful of this naturally occurring element found in the listed products, stressing that it is highly toxic to human health, especially babies at the developmental stage in the womb, and body organs.
In a work titled, ‘The toxicology of mercury: Current research and emerging trends,’ by Geir Bjørklund and others, published in National Library of Medicine, the authors concluded that Mercury is a persistent bio-accumulative toxic metal with unique physicochemical properties of public health concern since their natural and anthropogenic diffusions still induce high risk to human and environmental health.
The study showed that people are mostly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound when they consume mercury-contaminated sea foods.
The study also differentiated between methylmercury and ethylmercury, noting that ethylmercury is used as a preservative in some vaccines and does not pose any health risk.
The researchers noted that human beings are exposed to high levels of mercury, while most people are exposed to low levels of mercury, often through continuous or intermittent long-term contact.
However, in a WHO disaster report, a significant example of mercury exposure affecting public health occurred in Minamata, Japan, between 1932 and 1968, where a factory producing acetic acid discharged waste liquid into Minamata Bay.
The discharge, which included high concentrations of methylmercury in a fish and shellfish-rich bay, caused serious devastation in the community.
“For many years, no one realised the fish were contaminated with mercury, and it was causing a strange disease in the local community and other districts. At least, 50, 000 people were affected to some extent and over 2, 000 cases of Minamata disease were certified.
“Minamata disease peaked in the 1950s, with severe cases suffering brain damage, paralysis, incoherent speech and delirium,” the report stated.
On the reduction of human exposure to mercury sources, WHO said, “There are several ways to prevent adverse health effects, including promoting clean energy, stopping the use of mercury in gold mining, eliminating the mining of mercury and phasing out non-essential mercury-containing products.
“Promote the use of clean energy sources that do not burn coal. Burning coal for power and heat is a major source of mercury. Coal contains mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that are emitted when the coal is burned in coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers and household stoves.
“Eliminate mercury mining and use of mercury in gold extraction and other industrial processes. Mercury is an element that cannot be destroyed; therefore, mercury in use could be recycled for other essential uses, with no further need for mercury mining. Mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining is particularly hazardous, and health effects on vulnerable populations are significant.
“Phase out the use of non-essential mercury-containing products and implement safe handling, use and disposal of remaining mercury-containing products,” WHO advised.
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