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Issue 1
, 2006
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Mapping a deadly hazard: Mercury in healthcare settings

By: Ratna Singh, Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2006

Mercury pollution has emerged as a serious global health and environmental hazard. But exposure to it in healthcare settings is proving to be one of the most difficult challenges as the deadly heavy metal is released on routine basis through breakage of thermometers, blood pressure devices and other medical equipments and practices.

Mercury spills in healthcare settings expose doctors, nurses, other health care workers and patients to elemental mercury. At room temperature significant amounts of liquid elemental mercury transform to into a highly toxic gas.

If discarded as a waste, mercury will eventually make its way into the environment where organisms living in rivers, lakes, or moist earth transform it into highly toxic organic mercury. This type of mercury, which affects nerves and brains at extraordinary low levels, persists and accumulates in animals, fish and the global environment.

Recognizing the hazards posed by mercury to women, including a large number of them who work as medical staff, the EEPHA (European Environment and Public Health Association) Environment Network EEN and the Health Care Without Harm Europe have joined forces to mobilize the health community across the globe to raise awareness of the risks to health from mercury exposure.

As a part of the campaign, hair samples from women in the age group of 18 to 45 years were collected. The samples were especially collected from women as they are at the greatest risk and may expose their un-born child to the deadly heavy metal.

Why hair as a sampling medium?

Hair testing gives an integrated analysis of mercury from all sources over time. It is possible to distinguish between organic and inorganic mercury in hair. The results will show cumulative exposure over one years period.

Blood gives mostly methylmercury exposure and fairly recent, at that. It's because about 90% of methylmercury is attached to hemoglobin in red blood cells. Urine gives estimates of mostly inorganic mercury exposure. It is good for occupational exposures to inorganic mercury but not as good for methylmercury and again, emphasizes recent exposures rather than integrated over time, like hair analysis.

The samples are being currently analyzed for its mercury content in a lab in Czech Republic. A standard protocol was followed for this globally, and hair samples were collected from nurses, women dentist, policy makers and fish eating mothers. The samples were taken from either the back of the head, or the neck area. Approximately 280 women from EU, India, South Africa and Philippines participated in this campaign.