A year after the Delhi government issued a stricture to ban the use of mercury-based instruments in hospitals,as much as 90 kg of the liquid metal has been sold by over 60 hospitals.
This was possible after the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) emerged with a unique plan to recycle unused mercury from the citys hospitals by selling it back to private manufacturers.
In 2010,the DPCC directed hospitals with 50 beds or more to minimise the use of mercury and eventually stop using mercury-based instruments.
More than 60 hospitals are already mercury-free. And,hospitals that have not phased it out,have at least stopped buying new mercury-based instruments. Delhi is probably the only state in the country that will soon be completely mercury-free, said a senior official of DPCC.
The three major sources of mercury in hospitals are thermometers,blood pressure instruments and dental amalgam fillings.
According to Dr T K Joshi of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Maulana Azad Medical Centre,the step to phase out mercury was taken because several of Delhis hospitals had no idea how to deal with mercury spillage when instruments broke.
A lot of it just went into general waste,which was incinerated. Due to this,mercury can become air-borne,which is dangerous. Even a momentary exposure to mercury fumes can be very damaging,especially to pregnant mothers and the unborn child. It is even more dangerous if mercury gets into the water supply, Dr Joshi said.
A study conducted by Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link in 2007 found that nearly 70 thermometer breakages take place each month in a 300 to 500 bedded hospital. The study also indicated that levels of air-borne mercury in these hospitals was 4 to 12 times higher than the accepted American standard. A similar study,conducted by Dr Joshi,will be submitted to DPCC soon.
We found that levels of air-borne mercury in some places is still higher than the accepted norm. Also,there is very little awareness on the part of healthcare workers on spillage and toxicity of mercury, he said.
Anita Industries,a firm that manufactures the mercury-based equipment,is one of the two firms that has bought nearly 50 kg of mercury from hospitals in Delhi over the past year.
One can get about 75 grams of mercury from BP instruments. Some hospitals give us loose mercury that they have removed from the instruments. We purify it and then manufacture our own BP instruments. We sell these to dealers in other parts of the country and even export it,since Delhi is the only state where mercury has been banned, said Sandeep Kalra,of Anita Industries.
The move,however,has not been welcomed by all doctors,as they do not trust the reading of digital or aneroid instruments. Cost and longevity of the alternative instruments is also a niggling factor for hospitals.
Authorities at Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya said while the hospital has completely phased out mercury,purchase of other instruments will take time.
High-end digital blood pressure machines are hard to find and are very expensive. But,after testing a few brands we have acquired some reliable machines that are not too expensive. The problem is that frequent calibration is required and this adds to the cost, said Dr K M Kalra,Medical Superintendent of the hospital.