Mainland China joins global effort to phase out industrial uses of mercury
Hospitals begin replacing obsolete instruments with electronic versions under global treaty to reduce contamination from heavy metal
Efforts by mainland hospitals to phase out instruments that use mercury - such as thermometers - reveal the severity of China's problem with the toxic metal, the scale of which remains sketchy even to experts.
Several hospitals in Beijing and Hebei province are replacing mercury-based thermometers and blood-pressure devices, and the mainland has agreed to phase out all such products by 2020. This was a target agreed in an international treaty to be signed next month in Japan, said Wang Wei , from the Beijing Global Village Environmental Education Centre .
China is among 147 nations that have agreed to control the use and emissions of mercury, a highly toxic metal that is liquid at room temperature, under the framework of the UN Environmental Programme's Minamata Convention. The agreement, to start in 2016, is named after the Japanese city that suffered industrial mercury poisoning in the 1950s and '60s.
The treaty is expected to have a profound impact on the mainland, the world's largest producer and user of mercury, as it sets timetables to limit or phase out its mining, trading and use.
The are many sources of mercury pollution, including coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, cement plants and smelting of non-ferrous metals.
Exposure to mercury and its compounds, even in small amounts, can damage the brain, nervous system and kidneys. Threats to human health are exacerbated as the metal accumulates in plants and animals, meaning doses increasing up through the food chain. The effects of the metal are long-lasting.
Despite initial resistance from hospitals which feared higher costs, the replacement plan was going fairly smoothly as the new electronic instruments have proven to last longer, Wang said.
But replacing mercury products is an arduous task on the mainland, which produced about 150 million mercury-based thermometers in 2010, Wang said.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the nation's mercury pollution, which remains largely overlooked and under-regulated, environmentalists say.
The only public statistics on the mainland's mercury pollution are from 2007, when it emitted about 643 tonnes of the chemical, according to a study conducted by the China Council for International Co-operation on Environment and Development (CCICED), a high-level think tank that includes global experts to advise the mainland on environmental policy.
"There has been no official update on mercury pollution figures since 2007 … so it's difficult to say if emissions have increased or decreased since then," said Chen Yang , from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Zhao Jing , an official at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, admitted that figures on mercury pollution had lapsed.
China aims to cut emissions of five types of heavy metals, including mercury, by 15 per cent by 2015 from 2007 levels in key industrial areas. But no details have been published as the documentation for the plan is classified as a state secret. Some major sources of mercury emissions also remained out of control, said Wang Ying , a Beijing-based adviser for the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council.
Coal-fired industrial boilers accounted for 33 per cent of the country's total mercury emissions in 2007, while cement plants - the limestone used to make cement and the coal used to fire the kilns both contain mercury - contributed an additional 14 per cent, according to the only available study by the CCICED. Yet the country still lacked standards on mercury emission for the two sectors, Wang said.