UNEP, Southern African governments and NGOs to meet to plan for move away from mercury in the health care sector

14 October 2007 - The dangers of mercury exposure are well documented [1] and health care institutions worldwide are gradually phasing out mercury based equipment in their sector.
In South Africa, the Department of Health in the province of KwaZulu Natal are already switching to safer viable alternatives.

In a first for Africa, representatives from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), government policy makers, health care workers and NGOs will meet on October 24-25 in Kempton Park, Johannesburg to discuss the phasing out of mercury containing medical products in the health care sector.

Organised by groundWork [2] (Friends of the Earth, South Africa) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) [3], in association with the UNEP, the workshop [4] builds on previous regional cooperative workshops organised by HCWH in association with UNEP Chemicals in 2006 promoting alternatives to mercury in the health care sector in South East Asia and Latin America. A key feature of these workshops is to raise awareness of the inherent environmental, community and occupational health dangers of mercury and provide delegates the opportunity to develop a strategy to reduce and ultimately phase out mercury use in the health sector.

Mercury pollution is a serious global environmental and human health problem which has various adverse impacts throughout the world. In health care settings, mercury may be released from thermometers, blood pressure devices, gastrointestinal and other mercury containing medical products. Viable alternative technologies are readily available and are increasingly being used by the health care sector in countries around the world. The World Health Organisation’s policy is to promote a transition to these alternatives.

Desiree Narvaez, of the UNEP Chemicals Mercury Program, one of the keynote participants in the workshop, said: “Mercury is a threat to health care workers, patients and the global environment. Spills from thermometers and blood pressure devices can cause acute harm to those in hospital settings. Meanwhile the mercury waste from hospitals, if not properly disposed of, winds up in the global food chain, and ultimately in the fish we eat."

Rico Euripidou, environmental epidemiologist at groundWork, is positive about a move towards mercury alternatives in the health care sector. “Already in Kwa-Zulu Natal, there is a directive from the Department of Health, technical services, not to replace mercury based equipment that is damaged. We believe this is a good start and can be speedily replicated throughout South Africa.”

Speakers at the conference are from Argentina, Botswana, the Unites States, Sweden, India and local South African health care staff and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Josh Karliner, International Team Coordinator of Health Care Without Harm, who has worked globally on this issue, states that, “health care leaders from around the world are increasingly substituting mercury-based medical devices with safer alternatives, thereby helping minimise their sector's impact on the environment and on human health itself.”

To participate in the workshop and find our how you too can phase out mercury in favour of safer alternatives, please call Gillian Addison at 033 342 5662 or e-mail her on gill@groundwork.org.za.

For more information:
Rico Euripidou, groundWork 083 519 3008

[1] Recent research: www.env-health.org/stopmercury/

[2] groundWork is a environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa and increasingly in Southern Africa on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Air Pollution, Waste (including Health Care Waste) and Corporate Abuse. groundWork is a member of Health Care Without Harm. www.groundwork.org.za

[3] Health Care Without Harm is a global campaign with more than 440 members in 52 countries dedicated to environmentally responsible health care (www.noharm.org)

[4] Visit http://www.mercuryfreehealthcare.org/ for draft agenda for conference and resource materials on the phase out of mercury.