Mercury in the Caribbean

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By Dr Bill McGraw

BOQUETE, Panama — The Caribbean islands of Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis have supported the reduction of mercury pollution in the environment. This is considerably important considering the primary source of protein on the islands is seafood. Seafood consumption and mercury amalgam fillings are the two most significant sources of mercury ingestion into the human body overall. The elimination of mercury from the human body once it is chronically stored in the tissues of the kidney, liver and brain is incredibly tricky, making avoiding mercury the only practical approach to prevent mercury toxicity.

The primary source of mercury pollution in Jamaica is the aluminium refining industry which contributes about 4.5 tons of mercury into the environment every year. Meanwhile, St Kitts and Nevis have 87 percent of their mercury coming from the disposal of consumer goods such as fluorescent light bulbs which contains at least 10 mg of mercury per bulb. Saint Lucia Island also reported that 70 percent of their mercury pollution comes from the disposal of mercury-containing consumer products. Conversely, Trinidad and Tobago has 75 percent of their mercury output associated with the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

Added together, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica contribute about 9.3 tons of mercury into the environment every year. This would be about eight percent of what the entire United States produces annually. Fortunately, the islands of Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis are committed to following the recommendations of the Minamata Convention, which involves limiting the use of mercury, reducing the importation of mercury-containing products and installing modern pollution control devices where necessary to reduce mercury emissions.

There is still more to the story here. Due to the direction of ocean currents from Central and South America, the Caribbean Islands receive pollution from other countries. During the period of 1550 to the present day, about 260,000 tons of mercury was lost to the environment in Central America through the use of mining for gold and silver. Most of this mercury was imported from Europe during the colonial invasion of these areas and used in removing these precious metals from raw ores through amalgamation. Mercury has been measured in adjacent agricultural soils near gold mining areas 200 years after all mercury used in gold mining was discontinued.

Mercury released into streams during gold processing and emitted into the air during heating or “roasting” of gold-mercury amalgams gets bound and recycled in the local environment. Elemental mercury, like the type used in gold mining for amalgamation, is transformed in anaerobic soils and sediments of streams and wetlands into the more toxic organic kind known as methyl mercury.

This organic form of mercury then binds to the sulphur which is found in proteins which can be found in all life forms. As mercury accumulates in living tissue, it recycles from one trophic level to another and is continually recycled from one area to another. This happens as living things are continuously being created and destroyed. It is estimated that it can take more than 1000 years for a mercury-polluted environment to be returned to normal due to mercury’s binding, accumulating and recycling properties.

Therefore, the only logical approach to mercury toxicity is to exclude its use in industry and avoidance of ingestion in the human body.

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