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Issue 31
February , 2011
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* EDITORIAL

Mitigating Heavy Metal Burden

Rajeev Betne
Source: Toxics Link, Date: February , 2011

At a time when the world is contemplating answers to the global climate change demon, countless anthropogenic externalities are striking us parallel and dearly; escalating heavy metal pollution and consequential health impacts is one such menace. Alike the climate fight, the science has risen to counter this threat rather late, with understanding, measures, means and even success rate varying temporally and spatially. For example, toxicity of lead (Pb) and mercury, both heavy metals, have been known since ages but their far-reaching eco-health upshots became a matter of global concern only recently while their several usages continue.

Applications where heavy metal usage are extrinsic, there are scientific successes such as unleaded gasoline, unleaded household paints, membrane technology in place of mercury process in chlor-alkali plants, non-mercury alternatives to dental filling, digital thermometers etc. Similarly for treating cut-woods copper and boron compounds have replaced arsenic compounds. However, in segments like electronics and electrical, the alternatives are still being experimented.

The technological advancements in sectors where heavy metals are geogenic, have been partial and mostly remedial. For instance, growing legumes, cereals, tomato, melons or even bio-energy crops in places known to contain heavy metals intrinsically, substantially cut down their toxic trail in the food chain. Inorganic methods such as lime application could reduce the heavy metal uptake in crops by manipulating soil pH. Alternatives to coal based fuel (coal contain natural mercury) especially in power generation and industries are still quite limited.
 
There are areas where scientific management has answers to reducing heavy metal burden. For example, growing electronic waste is now being countered with safer components, design engineering and recycling and management of e-waste.

The new-age nano-science is claimed to have one-point solution in many fields. However, nano has to cross numerous barriers counting that of toxicity, ecological footprints and even ethical considerations to be finally accepted as a wonder science.

In short, modern science might have solutions to the heavy metal menace but the future control strategies would depend not only on the science that is logical but also its management and enforcement. It has to be assimilative science. We need to follow the lifecycle approach. First, build inventory to ascertain sources of heavy metals pollution, qualify what’s essential and what’s not. Non-essential uses can then be bracketed into something like ‘no-tolerance’ zone. Second, set priorities in ‘essential’ sphere, look for safer alternatives and upscale. There can be immediate, intermediate and long-term priorities based on technological advancement and economics. Remediation and the treatment can be the final two steps. Critical would be the policy (science based and dynamic) and its strict enforcement. The way forward is not to be trapped into the vicious cycle and fall pray to the unknown. We need to change the way we think about the ‘change’. We can’t accept a development model where we first create the muck and then look for solutions to clean that up!

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