India has decided to sign the Minamata Convention, a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. Mercury, considered highly toxic but used extensively in healthcare products, lighting and for religious purposes, will be phased out in India in the next six to 10 years. Studies by Toxic Link, a Delhi-based advocacy group, had a few years ago pushed Delhi and state governments to announce their intent of making hospitals mercury-free. For a majority of the states, however, it is still a long way to go.
Mercury, also known as quick silver, has some 3,000 industrial applications in India and can be found in thermometers and other healthcare products, paints, cosmetics, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), electrical switches and fertilisers. Making India mercury-free would need quite a lot of work, but the signing of the Minamata convention is a good beginning. While the old-style thermometers containing the viscous silvery liquid are no longer in wide use, having been replaced by digital gadgets, CFLs have edged out the old light bulbs because of the belief that they do not contribute to global warming and also provide greater illumination.
CFLs have been also encouraged because they last longer and consume less electricity, in effect, as their promoters argue, reducing the demand for power and enabling power plants to burn less amounts of coal. Although the burning of coal too releases mercury into the atmosphere—as do CFLs when they break or are improperly disposed of—the balance had nevertheless tilted in their favour in recent years. But, new thinking is prevailing and these fluorescent lights will soon be on their way out. For other applications, the natural resistance to change will make the users persist with old habits unless there is greater effort to publicise the dangers of using the poisonous liquid metal that poses health and environmental hazards.