Impacts Of Mecury On Human Health And The Environment

In our efforts as human beings to improve our standard of living, we consequently increase our industrial activities. These activities release pollutants into our environment.One of these pollutants that are toxic to human health and the environment is mercury.

Mercury is an extremely poisonous chemical element with symbol Hg. Though it can be changed into solid or gas at suitable temperature, it is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. In its physical state, mercury appears appealing in shiny silver-white form and it conducts electricity due to its very high surface tension.


Mercury exists naturally through volcanic activity, weathering of rocks, that is, the normal breakdown of minerals in rocks,and water movement. It also occurs through human activities such asartisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM); a prevalent mining process in Nigeria, coal-fired power plants, industrial fugitive emissions, oil and gas processing industry and cement production. These are major activities thatemitmercury into the atmosphere and release it into soil and waterthereby causing environmental pollution in Nigeria.

Mercury can be used to make scientific instruments such as thermometers and barometers. Also, because of its ability to conduct electricity, it is used in electric switches and as relays in equipment. The vapor in mercury is used in streetlights and fluorescent lamps.  Mercury readily combines with other metals like gold, zinc and silver to form alloys; also called amalgams. These amalgams are used to create dental filings, prolong the life of dry battery cells made with zinc and used to help extract gold from its ore.

Other sources of mercury includeskin-lightening products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, industrial boilers,agricultural fertilizers, waste disposal and incineration.


Health Impacts   

Mercury is a major public health concern because it is inimical to human health.  Exposure to the toxic element and its compound can cause damage to the brain, disrupt the nervous system and affect the lungs, kidneys and eyes. It also results in allergic reactions such as headaches, tiredness and skin rashes. Even in small amounts, mercury impacts the reproductive organs negatively by causing sperm damage, birth defects and miscarriages.

Nearly all fish and shell fish contain traces of mercury but some have higher concentration that may be harmful to pregnant women; however, for dietary purpose, pregnant women can still eat fish and shell fish that are low in mercury.

Additionally, the continuous use of skin lightening products that contain mercury poses a high health risk to people who use them. The accumulation of mercury in the body through the skin can damage the liver and kidney.

Environmental Impacts   

Mercury and its compound are non-biodegradable. So, they persist in the environment for an extended period killing important microorganisms in the environment.

Mercury is significantly harmful due to its ability for long-range transportation. It can travel globally through air, soil and water bodies.

Mercury and its compounds also have adverse impact on the environment as they bio-accumulate in the ecosystem. Mercury accumulates in organisms through different transmission pathways like the food chain.


Role Of Nigerian Government 

Nigerian government through the Federal Ministry of Environment is involved in a variety of activities to phase out mercury. These include promoting use of clean energy in industrial activities, enforcing the proper use and disposal of mercury containing products,discouraging the use of mercury in gold mining, developing laws to protect the health of Nigerian citizens and finding lasting alternatives to the use of mercury containing products.

In order to phase out mercury, Nigeria became a signatory to the Minamata convention on mercury; a global environment treaty, on 10th October, 2013.  The convention is aimed at promoting the “use of alternatives and Best Available Techniques (BAT) and Best Environmental Practices (BEP) across a wide range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.”  This, in the end, will help protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and its compound.

The government in a series of strategic plans and with support from Global Environment Facility (GEF), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is working assiduously to implement the Minamata Convention Initial Assessment (MIA) project. This will assist Nigeria to assess its institutional capability, identify gaps in policy and legislative framework, identify intervention sources and raise awareness among relevant stakeholders. The success of the MIA will serve as a basis for the country to ratify the Minamata convention requirements.

To further the course of raising awareness among Nigerian citizens, the Federal Ministry of Environment at a recent workshop in Lagos engaged the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the Minamata convention on mercury. The awareness raising workshop was to enlighten participants on the Minamata convention, and develop strategic and realistic tactics to disseminate information on mercuryto the populace.

The role of the media and NGOs cannot be over-stressed as the sector is the mouthpiece of the people, if fierce awareness is raisedsuch as it was done with NAFDAC number on products during Professor Dora Akunyili’s tenure at the agency whereby illiterates and educated people became aware of the importance of NAFDAC’s certification on a product, Nigeria is on a good path to fulfill its obligation to the ratification of the Minamata convention while also contributing to the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals 3, 6, 9 and 14.


Ms Damilola Adeoye

Program officer,

Centre For 21st Century Issues