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Occupational Health and Toxicology: Mercury Poisoning Report

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2020

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and discuss the impact of mercury poisoning on the occupational health of workers and its toxicology. As a result, the paper first elaborates the scientific details of the nature and effects of mercury, outlines the historical background of the problem in the workplace, identifies the sources of the problem, and assesses the gravity of the situation using a case study to see how mercury poisoning affects people at work. Also, this research examines the current status of mercury poisoning in workplaces, evaluates the impact of this toxic metal on the biosphere, conducts a succinct data analysis, endorses plans for the future along with proper suggestions, and draws a pertinent conclusion. The research primarily focuses on occupational health and attempts to identify and address the dangers associated with the physical exposure to mercury in some specific workplaces, while evaluating the possible solutions to the problem through the maintenance of a protected and healthy working atmosphere.

Scientific Details of the Nature and Effects of Mercury

Mercury, a heavy metal that is liquid in room temperature, is toxic in all its available forms – according to Olson (2016), even the slightest contamination from this element can cause gastrointestinal complications, neurological disorders, and fatal bilateral kidney malfunctioning. Olson (2016) further suggested that humans can get in touch with the metal in various ways, but the most common modes include breathing its vapor, absorbing it through the skin, or swallowing or infusing it by some means. The metal is available in nature as elemental mercury, inorganic salts, and some organic compounds; however, methyl mercury is frequently suggested to have the most dangerous impact on human health in the long run, as its absorption into the bloodstream can be fatal. Mercury is one of the constituent metals of the planet and is hardly found in nature in its elemental state; as a result, it appears as compounds or bivalent atoms, although the pure metal is conventionally used in manufacturing industries (for example, in certain types of electrical applications, fluorescent lamps, thermometers, barometers, and sphygmomanometers), exposing the workers to its toxicity.

Even more dangerously, at normal temperatures, unwrapped mercury usually evaporates into extremely toxic odorless vapors causing grievous harm to the respiratory tract – as the temperature continues to increase; higher amounts of vapors are discharged, and this inflicts incurable sicknesses over the factory workers. Mercury is extracted from the ores of mercury sulfide, and traditionally, this is the key source for the commercial extraction of the metal through the treatment of the compound above 540º Celsius – consequently, laborers are exposed to pollution in two stages, firstly, by direct contact during extraction, and secondly, by inhalation of the metal during vaporization. World Health Organization (2017) reported that depending on the nature of the source, mercury poisoning could lead to a wide range of health issues, starting from metal disturbances to physical mutations. Workers exposed to the metal for longer-term can suffer from irreversible disorders. The following table briefly shows the health impact of various forms of metal:

Forms of mercury Effects on human health
Elemental or metallic mercury Mercury in this form is usually absorbed via the lungs, and chronic exposures can cause irritability, nervousness, emotional changes, excessive shyness, tremors, instability in sensations, insomnia, poor nerve responses, twitching, muscle atrophy, Minamata disease, and numbness
Permanent impairment of central and peripheral nervous systems, injury to digestive and immune systems, high blood pressure, low cardiac rate variability, cerebral palsy, delayed development, seizures, mental retardation, and liver damage
Acute exposure to metallic mercury can create hyperactive ligament reflexes, sensory mutilation, sluggish sensory or motor nerve transmission rate, as well as paresthesia
Organic mercury (for example, methyl mercury) Industrial workers habitually exposed to the metal can suffer from hallucinations, paralysis, incoherent speech, Minamata disease, and brain damage
It can also cause loss of peripheral vision, impairment thyroid gland, loss of hearing, ‘pins and needles’ sensation in arms, legs, and face, and lack of coordination of movements, and poor balance
In younger workers, it can hamper brain growth, and damage to neurons, attention, cognitive thought, memory, and spatial skills
Inorganic salts of mercury or other mercury compounds Exposure for a prolonged period can cause harm to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and renal failure
Memory loss, muscle weakness, mental disturbances, skin rashes, mood swings, and dermatitis
Inhalation can cause neuromuscular effects, tremors, insomnia, headaches, behavioral and neurological chaos, and cognitive and motor dysfunction
Inorganic salts are accumulated in kidneys and can corrode human skin, eyes, and respiratory tract

Table 1: The health impact of various forms of mercury

Source: Generated from the World Health Organization (2017)

Historical Background and Sources of the Problem

Spiegel (2009) noted that historically mercury was used in gold mining and extraction of some other forms of metals, which increased the occupational health risks of the workers. However, there existed occupations in which poor people were compelled to use mercury as a catalyst in the production of other commercial items. Traditionally, workers who were directly engaged in the mining of mercury from its ore (mercury sulfide ores), or processed the compound by heating it to obtain pure elemental mercury, remained exposed to the toxicity throughout the day not just by physical contact, but also by inhalation of the vapor. Old-fashioned industries that dealt with the making of electrical switches, fluorescent lights, thermometers, barometers, or sphygmomanometers also required workers to come into touch with the toxicity since there were no environmental, employment, or health and safety regulations to address the issue in the past. Lack of scientific evidence and knowledge of the direct causal link between mercury and physical illness was also an unfavorable factor. According to Spiegel (2009), historically, poverty-stricken laborers in above fifty nations extracted gold with the assistance of mercury without any precautionary measures, and only recently, the United Nations has come forward with the roadmap for handling the issues of occupational health and environmental justice.

Case Study

In the 1950s, a chemical company located near Minamata Bay in Japan utilized mercury in making acetaldehyde, while the improper handling of methyl mercury without sufficient precautionary measures caused mental disturbances (later termed as Minamata disease) not just to the workers of the factory, but also to the local people of the entire vicinity. The poisoning spread rather quickly in the area, affecting the food chain, and investigations revealed that more than 2,200 adults were suffering from Minamata disease, whilst children started to show symptoms of an extremely agonizing syndrome similar to cerebral palsy, and pregnant women who were exposed to the pollution had newborns with poor brain development. Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of occupational toxicity from mercury poisoning is the Kodaikanal thermometer factory incident, where Unilever, the renowned global giant in consumer products, was held liable for inflicting injury on the workers during the manufacturing procedure due to poor work environment and unplanned waste disposal behind the factory. Kodaikanal tragedy remains to be one of the worst events of mercury pollution in the workplace, and the case has been elaborated comprehensibly in the table below:

1983 Due to stricter ecological laws in the United States preventing the use of mercury in production plants, Chesebrough Ponds relocated its mercury thermometer plant to southern India
1986 The plant was permitted to be located at a residential vicinity surrounded by a lush woodland
At this stage, Unilever’s subsidiary company Hindustan Lever purchased this factory as a part of Unilever’s takeover of Chesebrough
Until 2001 Pereira (2016) noted that until February 2001, over 163 million thermometers were manufactured in the plant using more than 900 kilograms of mercury per year and were exported in the United States and European countries
The poisonous wastes were allowed to remain in Kodaikanal
While carrying out its business, the corporation failed to pay even slightest attention to occupational safety issues and did not follow the guidelines for handling risky substances like mercury
Above one thousand employees were exposed to mercury poisoning
Numerous laborers died early and they claimed the deaths were due to occupational exposure to mercury
Other laborers and their families were fighting to survive with the health hazards and the resultant economic adversity
Many children of laborers were born with congenital complicacies, while some children died
March 2001 Employees revealed a huge deposit of mercury waste in a crowded part of the city
Unilever also threw mercury in the woodland near the factory
Local pollution control board closed the factory, but still, now, tons of mercury wastes are present in the adjacent lands and surrounding atmosphere
The company continued its efforts to avoid corporate liability and negligence
Early 2003 India was able to compel Unilever to take back 289 tons of mercury wastes to recycle factory in the US
The laborers and their families continued their fight for sufficient reparation and the cleaning of the remaining mercury
2006 Ex-workers of the factory sued the company in the Madras High Court
They had suffered from miscarriages, renal and nervous system disorders, and disabilities
2011 The Indian Ministry of Labor came up with the findings that there was proof of mercury poisoning in amongst the workers
The committee stated that about 45 workers had died from the poisoning and over six hundred of them suffered from grievous injuries
2015 Finally, the company came to a financial settlement and offered damages to the affected workers, but their physical injuries were irreversible

Table 2: Kodaikanal case study. Source: Generated from Pereira (2016).

Current Status

Spiegel (2009) stated that in recent years, the developed countries have formulated laws and regulations regarding employees’ health and safety rights, protected workplace environment, fairness in employment terms, and guidelines for factories and industries regarding precautionary measures and safe limits of toxic materials in the atmosphere. Presently, the United Nations has put forward numerous agendas to ensure the occupational health of workers to assure their basic human rights and ascertain that employers do not exploit them by unfairly forcing them to perform hazardous jobs. The UN has also drafted many soft laws and course of action for the member states requiring them to ensure surveillance over the local industries and to create domestic laws to oversee the matter. Regional alliances like the European Union came up with strong rules imposing a regulatory burden over the member states and multinational corporations to comply with the occupational health and safety measures and public health policies.

At present, there are many technical analyses and well-funded researches regarding the ecological and health risks related to heavy metals like mercury and improper labor practices that address the necessity for punitive public policies to meet the requirements of the susceptible community and propose environmental justice models to broaden the traditionally restricted focus on poisonous working conditions. However, even after the introduction of so many legal sanctions, state authorities are failing to oversee the smaller industries or factories located in the rural or remote areas. Spiegel (2009) suggested that the underdeveloped gold extraction industries in rural areas of Tanzania, for example, attracts poverty-stricken workers for whom mining is the mere source of income; therefore, irrespective of the fact that this industry offers the globe’s most alarming source of mercury contamination, there is nothing much the workers can do. The author further added that around a hundred million workers rely on these extraction industries to earn their living, whereas about thirteen to fifteen million miners globally generate approximately eight hundred to one thousand tons of mercury annually; consequently, it cannot be argued that the situation has significantly improved due to the regulatory policies in the recent years.

The Impact on Biosphere

Notably, mercury can have an irreparable impact on the biosphere, and the most crucial feature of the effect is in the capacity of the metal to accumulate in living beings and to move around the food chain; moreover, the bio-magnification of methyl mercury has the most extensive consequences over the animal kingdom. Even though each form of the metal can gather inside the bodies of the animals to some extent, methyl mercury is easily broken down than any other forms; in fact, almost hundred percent of the metal bio-accumulating in predator fishes consist of methyl mercury because fishes process this chemical quite quickly and vigorously. It is suggested that birds and mammals that consume fish possess greater methyl mercury content within themselves as compared to other creatures in the aquatic ecology, whereas predators that feed on the birds or mammals are also found to be sufferers since traces of the chemical has been detected in eagles, bears, and some rare tiger species. Mercury assists methylation of bacteria, so when methyl mercury-carrying bacteria freely travels along the food chain or excrete the chemical in the pond or lakes, the pollution further aggravates and an increasing number of ecosystems are endangered. Mercury diminishes the essential microbiological activity in the soil and the Arctic zone is the most vulnerable location due to the long haul transportation of the metal, although the adverse effects are not limited to that area only and the wildlife is seriously threatened in the US as well.

Data Analysis

It is essential to evaluate the data on the quantity of mercury released by each industry to comprehend the most vulnerable workplace. US Environmental Protection Agency (2017) suggested that the data illustrating the annual emission levels of the metal is quite frightening since worldwide, around five to eight thousand metric tons of mercury are produced each year. According to these statistics, the biggest emitter of the pollutant is the gold mining industry, releasing about thirty-seven percent of mercury each year, whereas around twenty-four percent of the metal is released by the coal combustion industry, as demonstrated in the figure below:

Mercury discharge based on industry. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency (2017)
Figure 1: Mercury discharge based on industry. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency (2017)

Suggestions and Plans for the Future

To significantly reduce the use of mercury in the industries, and make sure that strict measures for occupational safety are ensured in the factories where treatment with mercury is unavoidable, certain corporations and state authorities have undertaken several strategic plans for the future. Also, experts have suggested several possible solutions to shrink the health hazards caused by the metal during work. While most of the action plans focus on imposing regulatory and managerial burdens upon the employers themselves, certain policies require actions from the other stakeholders as well. Some recommendations and futuristic plans to reduce or eliminate the impact of mercury exposure amongst workers are outlined below:

Steps Implementation methods
Employers’ dedication Employers must see deterrence of workplace injury as a key objective and conform to domestic and international laws and regulations
Managers must take the responsibility to protect occupational health with adequate authority and proficiency and employ privately hired consultants
Allocate enough budgets to establish an eco-friendly working environment
Training and education The companies must arrange regular training sessions to educate workers about safe practices
The edification process must include enlightening the workers about the techniques by which exposures can be prevented
A list of workers missing the training sessions or not participating there should be maintained
Worker participation Workers must start collaboration to form and manage health and safety committee
Take part in training and education organized by the management of the company
Demand access to safety data from the employers about the working environment regularly
Detection of risk Authorities should investigate accidents and closely observe any incidents of mercury spillage
Supervisors of the company should maintain records and investigation results of accidents
The reports should be communicated to experts, consultants, and trainers regularly to get their opinion on how to avoid any such future incidences
The reports must be shared with the employees compulsorily to enlighten them about how accidents can be avoided and identify working practices by which exposures to mercury can be reduced
Implementing controls Companies must come forward with short and long-term strategies
They should regularly publish health and safety guidebooks containing the fair policies of employment and safe procedures to conduct daily operations at factories
The government must enforce policies and procedures to oversee the issue
Governmental efforts Collect data regarding the works that involve mercury and other associated practices
Create an inventory of all the industrial locations where mercury is used
Create an inventory on the number of employees working with mercury on each shift
Consider workers indirectly exposed to the toxicity as well as those standing nearby
Prepare an authentic categorization of all workers near the factory (for example, permanent or temporary workers, storekeepers, interns and students, housekeeping, truck drivers, supervisors and managers, visitors, contractors, as well as official, administrative, and clerical staff)
Increase investment in research and development to discover the scientific solution to the problem
Supervisors’ duties Record the job title and duties of each employee
Scrutinize the responsibilities by calculating how often and how long they perform a task
Create a comprehensive list of divisions, procedures, floors, or work stations where mercury is used
Other actions Record the normal, irregular, overtime, and urgent work shifts
Record the changes in the number of productions, administer trial runs, and test batches
Regulate the temperature of the factories, as greater temperatures can boost vaporization of the metal
Limiting elemental mercury exposure Observe and conduct interviews to find out how employees might be exposed
Avoid direct contact with mercury or splashing or spilling over the skin
Collect industrial wastes and safely transport them to recycling plants rather than disposing of them here and there
Improve the design of the workplace so that it is well-ventilated and easy to clean
Avoid handling of objects that contacted mercury
Use gloves, special clothing, repellent shoes, and eyeglasses
Thoroughly wash skin, nails, face, and hair at end of work shift
Discard or sterilize the clothing or gloves used in each session
Sterilize workstations and other areas outside the factory
Always close container in which mercury is kept as it can easily vaporize
Avoid smoking in the site
Prevent the admission of any kind of beverages, food, or utensils in or near the site
Always wearing respirators
Throw out used respirators at a proper location
Additional safety measures Observe workers at production facilities and carry out their interviews to find out what controls are implemented across the plant
Isolate or regulate vulnerable areas by closing doors, restricting entry of superfluous workers, limiting time in the area, controlling the movement of air in the area
Consult professional industrial hygienist or engineer for the purpose
Introduce innovative technologies that can better regulate the pollution
Store and transfer mercury-containing items in impermeable bags
Set up monitors that can give an alarm when the acceptable airborne concentration of the metal exceeds
Working surfaces should be made with stainless steel and must have proper drainage systems
The surface should be sloped to a compilation arena
Avoiding wood or carpeted flooring in the factory building
Using dark color in floors so that mercury spillage can be easily noticed
Proscribing the use of vacuum pumps for cleaning purposes
Preventing dry sweeping or wiping
Clearing spills quickly
Regularly checking the efficiency of the supervision systems
Discussing with occupational health and safety professionals or other industry experts for essential directions
Carrying out medical checkup of the workers every week

Table 3: Recommendations and futuristic plans. Source: Self-generated.

Conclusion

Exposure to mercury at occupation can cause irreversible and deadly physical and mental illnesses to workers in the long run. However, historically the trend amongst employers was to ignore precautionary measures and to focus rather on profit generation. Along with scientific advancement, people turned out to be more conscious and state authorities and the United Nations updated their laws to include occupational health and safety measures as the central focus. Still in remote areas, appropriate compliance to these regulations cannot be ensured. As a result, the government, corporate organizations, employees, local communities, and other stakeholders should jointly undertake some futuristic strategies to uphold occupational safety measures in all spheres of production.

Reference List

Olson, D. (2016). . Web.

Pereira, A. (2016). Web.

Spiegel, S. (2009). Occupational health, mercury exposure, and environmental justice: learning from experiences in Tanzania. American Journal of Public Health, 99(3), 550-558.

US Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Web.

World Health Organization. (2017).. Web.

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