At the UN meeting held in Stockholm, Sweden from June 7-11, hair samples were collected from 45 government delegates from 40 countries, including the Philippines, eight representatives of NGOs and indigenous peoples, four Swedish politicians, and one Swedish Olympic athlete.
Organized by the International POPs Elimination Network and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, the hair test generated broader awareness among delegates about mercury levels in the body and drew media attention to the global mercury treaty.
“The survey illustrates the need to tackle the mercury problem because mercury is present in all of us and it shouldn’t be a part of our bodies! To eliminate all sources of mercury, I and the Swedish government want an effective global legally binding instrument on mercury in place soon,” said Mr. Andreas Carlgren, Swedish Environment Minister, one of the hair test participants.
“The test results only reinforce the need for collaborative efforts, locally and globally, to control mercury pollution from human activities and protect our environment, our food supply and our bodies from such a toxic threat. As a fish-eating nation, we have so much at stake in pursuing a treaty that will safeguard our marine staple foods,” said Atty. Juan Miguel Cuna, Director, Department of Environment and Natural Resources- Environmental Management Bureau, another hair test participant.
The survey found mercury in all of the 58 hair test participants. The amount of mercury in hair provides an estimate of methylmercury in the body. Fish consumption is the main way people are exposed to methylmercury, which is toxic to human health.
The survey found mercury levels between 93 ug/kg and 2956 ug/kg. More than one-third of the samples exceeded the US National Research Council mercury reference dose of 1000 ug/kg. The reference dose is a level set for pregnant women to avoid adverse fetal brain development effects.
Surprisingly, average mercury levels in people from developing and transition countries were twice the levels measured in delegates from developed countries. The difference was statistically significant.
Globally, fish is a major source of human exposure to mercury and a vital source of food. According to the UN, fish provides at least 40% of protein for two-thirds of the world’s population, including most of the world’s poor. Cooking or removing the skin does not remove mercury. Mercury is highly toxic, especially to the developing brain. The nervous system damage is irreversible.
Mercury is transformed into methyl mercury by micro-organisms in the environment. Methyl mercury then accumulates up the food chain as larger fish eat smaller ones. Due to long-range transport, high mercury levels are observed in the Arctic, far from the sources of any significant releases. This makes mercury contamination a global issue.
Mercury is released to the environment from many sources including:coal combustion, mining activities, mercury-containing products and devices, product manufacturing sites, metal refining and recycling, cement kilns, waste dumps and incinerators, contaminated sites, crematoria and many others.
Link to the hair test report:
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