EARTH Thailand

Mercury taints hair samples in industrial, mine areas

Bangkok Post 19 September 2017 | Apinya Wipatayotin

High levels of the toxic heavy metal mercury have been detected in people and the environment in eight provinces across the country where heavy industry, gold mining and coal-fired power plants are concentrated, according to a study.

The findings have raised fears over brain damage in newborn children.

By the end of the third week of gestation in humans, the foetal brain has already begun its formation and mercury poisoning during this early period can result in severe abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord.

The Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand (EARTH) environmental group, supported by the International POPs Elimination Network (Ipen), collected hair samples from 68 people in Prachin Buri and Rayong provinces last year.

The hair was sent for laboratory tests in the Unites States and Czech Republic, and the results showed heavy contamination in women of child-bearing age and in the environment.

Autthaporn Ritthichart, a researcher from Earth, yesterday said she collected hair samples from 34 women aged between 18-44 years living near Map Tha Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong and another 34 women near coal power plants and a paper-making factory in Si Maha Phot district of Prachin Buri.

The results showed 73.5% of participants have more than 1 part per million (ppm) of mercury in their bodies, above the recommended level of the United States Environmental Protection Agency of no more than 1 ppm, she said.

Also, 98.5% had mercury contamination of more than 0.58 ppm, a level that scientists believe can cause foetal neurological damage, she said.

Thailand ranked No.9 for mercury contamination in an international survey with an average of 3.077 ppm in hair, compared with Indonesia which had the worst score at 6 ppm.

Based on 35 locations studied globally, Prachin Buri province ranked 11th with 79% of people having over 1 ppm of mercury contamination while Map Tha Phut Industrial Estate was 12th with 68%, she said.

The study of mercury contamination in hair was conducted across 25 countries in small-scale gold production areas in Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar and Paraguay, Pacific islands such as Cook Islands, Solomon Islands and Tonga, together with heavy industrial zones in Russia, Hungary, Uruguay and Thailand.

Earth director Penchom Sae-Tang said it is clear the major sources of mercury are coal power plants and the petrochemical industry, but the government has no policy to limit those pollutant sources.

On the contrary, the military regime has boosted the number of coal and waste-fuelled power plants, and the Earth director said the government should come up with a clear plan to limit and control mercury contamination, especially since it signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury in June this year.