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Quick silver poisons Bengal’s fish platter

The perception that Bengalis are intelligent because they eat fish may ebb away soon. Next time when a child fails an examination, a youth commits suicide because of depression; people get more agitated, or suffer from Parkinson’s/Alzheimer’s at a premature age, blame the mercury that may have entered their bodies through a fish bought at their para markets. A study by two NGOs ~ Toxics Link (New Delhi) and Disha (Kolkata) ~ states that there is an alarming amount of mercury present in fish in West Bengal.
Sixty samples of fish and various varieties of crabs were examined from markets such as Gariahat, Sahababur Bazar, Manicktala, Sealdah and Behala and about 204 samples of fish and crabs were collected from the Ganga at Farakka, Damodar in the Durgapur-Asansol belt, the Matla and Bidyadhari at Jharkhali and from water bodies of the East Kolkata Wetlands. The percentage of methyl mercury (a form of mercury) in the samples was found to be 70-500 per cent more than the permissible limit set by the Joint FAO/WHO expert committee on food additives and the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and Rules, 1954.
The study, conducted in 2008-09, had been given to the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB), but it is yet to review it. “Central Pollution Control Board had set the year 2012 as deadline for two factories ~ Durgapur Chemicals and Hindusthan Heavy Chemicals ~ to replace use of mercury or treat the chemical waste they release. We cannot say anything about the unorganised sector yet. If the study is found to be valid, then they may give suggestions to the Government of India,” said Mr Biswajit Mukherjee, senior law officer, WBPCB.
A copy of the study was also sent to the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) and it has taken up a project, “Zero Mercury Campaign”. An inter-governmental negotiating committee has been set up to develop a legally binding treaty to stop the use of mercury from all anthropogenic uses.
“Mercury can cause manic depressive tendencies and irritation among other ailments. It affects brain, nervous system and most importantly the womb. Babies with less body weight are most vulnerable to its ill effects and can be born with physical and mental disorder,” said Dr Shantanu Chakraborty, Disha, who conducted the study with Dr Abhay Kumar, Toxics Link. The FDA recommends that women who are pregnant, or may become pregnant, should avoid fish that may contain unsafe levels of methyl mercury.
The problem gets worse since doctors in the country do not know that environmental pollutants can cause such diseases. “If there is an ailment because of mercury, doctors would give symptomatic treatment to the patient. Presence of mercury in body can be detected by conducting hair or blood test. But I have rarely come across anybody who has undergone such a test. But, we have thousands of babies born with mental disorder and people with neurogical problem nowadays,” adds Dr Chakraborty.
Mercury can also bring down IQ-level in children. “Government of India has no policy for diagnostic and therapy of ailments caused by environmental pollution. We had conducted the study only in West Bengal, the contamination may be much higher in other states if studied,” said Dr Chakraborty.
Thermal power plants and chlor-alkali plants are the major source of mercury. “These power plants should use clean coal and dental mercury amalgam can be replaced by resin plastic to reduce mercury use. A substantial amount of mercury waste comes from only thermometers in the state,” said Mr Sashanka Dev, President of Disha.

Soma Basu

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