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CSE study: High mercury level in people of Sonbhadra in UP

Lucknow, Oct 19 - High levels of mercury have been detected in the environment and bodies of the people in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh, according to a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment.

"The study, which was initiated after some residents of Sonbhadra approached the CSE in May last year, reflects signs of mercury poisoning among the people," Director General Sunita Narain told reporters while releasing the study here. She said people from the district had approached the CSE to study pollution and health problems in their locality.

Deputy Director General Chandra Bhushan said samples of water, soil, cereals, fish as well as blood, nails and hair of people living in the district were collected for the survey at CSE's pollution monitoring laboratory.

"The area selected for the study was Dhudi sub-division, which has the largest concentration of thermal power plants, coal mines and other polluting agencies," he said.

The samples were tested for presence of mercury and other heavy metals like arsenic, while fish were tested for methyl mercury, the most poisonous form of mercury, he said.

"During the study, mercury was found in 84 per cent of the blood samples at a very high level -- an average level of 34.3 parts per billion. Though India does not have a standard, the safe limit as per the US Environment Protection Agency is 5.8 ppb," he said.

Bhushan said mercury was found in 58 per cent samples of human hair, with the average level at 7.39 parts per million. "According to Health Canada, 6 ppm is considered safe. The highest amount of mercury found in the study was 31.3 ppm - five times the safe limit," he said.

He said mercury has contaminated groundwater in Sonbhadra. "The highest concentration of mercury was found in the hand pump water sample of Dibulganj (0.026 ppm) which is 26 times the standard of .001 ppm set by the Bureau of Indian Standards," he said.

Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar Reservoir was also contaminated with mercury, he said. "The fish in the area were found to be contaminated with mercury. Fish near Dongiyanallah had 0.447 ppm of methyl mercury, which is almost twice the standard set by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India," he said.

DDG said high incidents of vitiligo (skin discolouration), shivers, reduced vision, burning sensation in the limbs and impaired language skills were found among the people. "All these are known to be symptoms of mercury exposure.

Chronic exposure to high levels of mercury can affect the nervous system and cause of memory loss, severe depression, increased excitability, delirium, hallucination and personality change, besides it can also damage the kidneys," he said.

Narain alleged that the fact of presence of high mercury level was already known through the studies carried out by Indian Institute of Toxicology Research and Central Pollution Control Board, but their reports were never made public.

Bhushan said in 2009, Sonbhadra was declared a critically polluted area and a moratorium was imposed on new projects, which was later removed on the basis of action plan by respective pollution control boards of UP and MP.

To check the problem, CSE DG said a moratorium should be imposed again and an impact assessment study should be done. CSE has also demanded that mercury standards be developed for thermal power plants, coal mines and coal washeries.

"Industries which do not comply with the standards should be shut down till they meet the norms," Narain said. Bhushan said treated water must be provided to the people.

"An advisory should be issued asking people not to consume fish contaminated with methyl mercury," he said. Narain said the study would be submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Uttar Pradesh government and industries concerned. PTI

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