Article courtesy of The Editor | October 10, 2014 || Shared as educational material
AGAINST the background of worsening pollution level in Nigeria, the alarm raised recently by a group of environmentalists on the subject is timely and should be given needed attention. Nigeria is certainly in the grip of serious pollution of human and physical environment arising from oil industry activities and dumping of all kinds of used materials into the country. Added to this burden is the deliberate importation of toxic materials by unscrupulous elements as a result of which Nigerians are daily exposed to deleterious contamination of its waters and air upon which life depends. While the overall impacts of these have not been determined, there is palpable fear of the worse, hence the need to put proactive measures in place to safeguard public health.
The environmentalists, who met in Lagos under the aegis of Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev) raised concerns about the dangers inherent in mercury contamination, in particular, and called for awareness creation in the country, with a view to phasing out the use of mercury before 2015. But it is not clear how this target would be achieved. A more strategic timeline would have been better. Besides, there are toxic substances, other than mercury that need to be phased out. Lead, cadmium and iron among others, are in that category of those metals with adverse effects on human metabolism.
Mercury is a chemical element commonly known as quicksilver. It occurs naturally in water, air and soil. It is a major threat via fish consumption, an all-important nutrition component. Mercury poisoning can result from exposure to water in soluble form, inhalation of mercury vapour or by eating seafood contaminated with mercury.
Incidentally, mercury is used in a variety of scientific devices such as thermometers, barometers and manometers. However, concerns about the element’s toxicity have led to the phasing out of some mercury-based scientific instruments and having them replaced with alcohol for safety. Nevertheless, mercury remains in use in scientific research applications and in amalgam materials used in dental restoration.
Mercury contamination is a health hazard. Eating fish contaminated with mercury is a poison that interferes with the brain and nervous system leading to serious problems. Better understanding of the nature and occurrence of mercury is therefore necessary in managing its contamination. Unfortunately, here in Nigeria, there is little or no statistics on mercury contamination. Outdated mercury processes and production equipments are still dumped and used in the country. Yet, there is need for information and better understanding of the risks and how to control mercury at different stages in a product’s life, from design, manufacturing, use, possible recycling and ultimate disposal.
It is noteworthy that most dental clinics and hospitals in the country still use mercury amalgam, even as incinerators and medical waste treatment facilities are very high-risk environments for mercury vapour emission. Both the workers and the general public are therefore exposed to mercury contamination with serious health consequences when there are no standard operating procedures for the handling, use and disposal of the dangerous substances.
Regrettably, since 1988, when the first recorded shipment of some 3,500 tons of toxic wastes from Italy was dumped at Koko Port in Delta State, not much has been done to improve standard procedures for the importation and use of toxic substances in the country. Consequently, Nigeria has remained a victim of toxic wastes contamination from second hand goods imports. The establishment of NESREA has not changed the situation. The agency’s work has more or less been that of occasionally intercepting ‘toxic cargo’ at the ports, while the issues of monitoring, setting standards and enforcement of those standards are largely ignored.
Since over 85 per cent of products used in the country are imported, among which are toxic e-wastes, there is need to monitor the impacts of these products on public health and environment. The fact that several non-communicable diseases like cancer that was hitherto unknown in this country, has become a major killer, is enough cause for alarm. The time is now for the appropriate government agencies to come up with standard procedures for handling toxic substances in the country.