Fidelis E Satriastanti
Jakarta. Environmental health activist Yuyun Ismawati is hardly a fan of mercury, so it came as a shock to her to find out that her dental fillings contained high concentrations of the heavy metal.
“The WHO [World Health Organization] lists dental amalgam as the biggest non-industrial mercury vapor source,” said Yuyun, a director at Bali Fokus Foundation, a toxic chemicals watchdog.
“The biggest contributor is still the industrial sector, due to the use of coal and natural gas, but the contribution from the health sector is considerable.”
Mercury is a common by-product of mining, cement production and coal-fired electricity production. It is also used in some cosmetics and present in fish caught in polluted waters.
However, an often overlooked source of mercury is the health sector, including dentistry and health equipment such as thermometers, Yuyun said.
Mercury can have a devastating impact on human health, causing allergic reactions, pneumonia and liver and heart damage. Mercury poisoning can also cause death.
The WHO estimates that 5 percent of the mercury released through waste water comes from medical facilities. Such facilities are responsible for 10 percent of the mercury vapor released through waste incineration.
Wiwik Wahjoeni, an official from the Health Ministry, said it was difficult to get accurate figures for mercury use in medical appliances in Indonesia.
“We should monitor the use of mercury-based dental amalgams, because not all dentists are aware of the dangers of this substance, particularly those at community health centers,” she said.
Rasio Ridho Sani, the assistant for toxic and hazardous substances at the Environment Ministry, said his office was currently drawing up a national action plan to ban the use of mercury, starting with the medical sector.
“It’s not a simple issue, given the ubiquitous use of mercury in everything from heavy industry to the medical sector,” he said.
“We’ve decided to start with the health sector because it affects people most directly, and we want all medical practitioners to realize this. Most of them don’t know that they’re harming their patients through their ignorance of the dangers of mercury.”
Faye Ferrer, from international health care watchdog Health Care Without Harm, pointed out that most developed countries now ban or strictly regulate the use of mercury in the medical sector.
“The European Union has banned mercury thermometers and is considering alternatives for blood pressure devices, too,” she said.
Ferrer called on developing countries like Indonesia to be wary of donations from developed countries in the form of medical equipment, as some countries might attempt to dump non-conforming equipment here.