Ghana needs a policy on food contamination by mercury – Expert
Ghana needs a policy on food contamination by mercury and hard metals to address the high concentration of hazardous substances in water and foods, according to Professor Richmond Aryeetey, Dean, School of Public Health, University of Ghana (UG).
He said it had become necessary as a lot of mercury; a highly toxic substance “is released into the environment through illegal mining, exposing miners and persons living in mining communities to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs)”
Speaking at the 6th Biennial Public Lecture of the College of Health Science, UG in Accra, Prof. Aryeetey said annually,” about 81 tonnes of mercury is released into the environment mainly through amalgamation and burning of the amalgam.”
He said illegal mining, commonly known as galamasy activities, released toxic chemicals which posed health risks such as functional impairment or disability to miners, mining and close communities, as well as boarder societies in the long term.
“Heavy metals are produced when the earth is excavated during mining affects different parts of the body like the nerve, lung, skin, kidney, brain, and the reproductive organs, increasing the public risk to hypertension, heart attack and kidney failure,” he said.
Prof Aryeetey said the high levels of mercury released into the environment, soil and river sediments without any containment efforts, was worrying as children exposed to mercury had more serious nervous effects.
He said almost all Ghanaians were exposed to mercury washed into the water bodies and picked up by the fish and sea foods which led to intellectual disability when consumed by pregnant women.
“Currently, there is no policy related to fish and mercury but there is evidence that when small fish consumes methyl mercury, they get eaten by bigger fishes which accumulates a lot more mercury, I will say that if you are a pregnant woman eat smaller fishes,” he said.
Some studies done by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) have shown that salty fish is highly polluted and not fit for consumption.
Prof. Aryeetey said in accordance with the Minamata Conventions, the government must develop and implement a national policy framework to safeguard health related to the mining industry.
Ghana has signed onto the Minamata convention to limit human exposure to mercury, but currently 36.5 tonnes of mercury is released into the air, 6.5 tonnes released into water and about 6 tonnes stay on land every year.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.
It draws attention to a global and ubiquitous metal that, while naturally occurring, has broad uses in everyday objects and is released to the atmosphere, soil, and water from a variety of sources.
Major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, the phase-out and phase-down of mercury use in several products and processes, control measures on emissions to air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Prof Aryeetey said the high exposure to mercury in West Africa is reducing the quality of life of people exposed to the substance.
Globally it is estimated that between 3.3 to 6.5 million people experience Chronic Metallic Vapor Intoxication.
Prof Aryeetey said mercury was one of ten chemicals recognized globally as a major public concern, informing that in Ghana it was a controlled substance.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), NCDs, kill about 41 million people each year and accounts for 74 per cent of all deaths globally.
The Professor said NCDs were increasing fast in developing countries and were the main causes of ill-health and loss of quality life. NCDs have complex causes and are associated with multiple factors with long latency period.
“We need to find ways to address NCDS and if galamsey is going to contribute to that then this is going to make matters more challenging,” he said.