Mercury levels in water rising: Experts

HARARE - Government and the World Bank (WB) are conducting research to ascertain the levels of mercury pollution in Zimbabwe amid indications that the highly toxic element has entered the food chain.

Isaac Kunene, environment and natural resources director, said the Zimbabwe diagnostic report will give the country substantial evidence and help direct intervention strategies.

“Environmentalists are concerned with the contamination of the environment,” Kunene said during a stakeholder meeting last week.

“Our water bodies are being contaminated, our fisheries and so on. The health sector is also talking about mercury being in the food chain.

“I think it is important for us to understand how much mercury has gone into the food chain, how much mercury is in our milk for babies so that we actually understand how best we can stop that pollution.

“We have (WB senior water resources specialist and task leader for Zimbabwe diagnostic report) Rafik (Hirji) here from the World Bank who are actually going to assist us in terms of doing thorough studies of what the situation is like here in Zimbabwe.”

Initial indications show that the activities of artisanal miners are causing the pollution because of mercury used in their mining activities.

“We are very aware that the activities of artisanal small-scale miners are very crucial to the economy, however, it is not a passport for players in the sector to pollute the environment,” Kunene said.

Petronella Shoko, Environmental Management Agency (Ema) environmental protection director,  said official records show that 10 tonnes of mercury have been imported since 2012.

“Someone in a meeting we attended recently said it is actually 25 tonnes,” Shoko said.

“We are manning six border posts and as an agency, we know this is what has come into the country legally (10 tonnes) and almost 100 percent goes into the mining sector, some insignificant amount goes into laboratories.”

According to Shoko, batteries, cold cathode fluorescent lamps, dental amalgam, thermometers as well as eye area cosmetics and skin lightening creams which have flooded streets have mercury.

“We know there are places like Kwekwe and Kadoma among others which are receiving most of the mercury,” she said.

“Apart from miners, the health sector will be affected especially through dental amalgamation.”

Available options for miners are borax or traditional panning, Shoko said.

Wonder Chigwida, deputy director of metallurgy in the ministry of Mines, said the new mining policy being crafted does not dwell much on mercury.

“…..because at the moment we really do not have an option to recover our gold,” he said.

“We have been working on reducing the pollution through using the barrel method and discouraging whole amalgamation.”

Hirji said there is now global consensus that mercury pollution is increasing.

“The problem is growing and we need to work on it,” Hirji said.

“If the policy is still being developed, then there is an opportunity for Ema to work closely with Mines ministry so that there is harmonisation.”

The collaboration is hinged on the Minamata Convention, which is a global legally-binding instrument on mercury.

Zimbabwe is in the process of ratifying the convention.

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