Delhi hospitals are sitting on 200 kg of highly toxic mercury because there is no law to enforce the Central Pollution Control Board's guidelines on its disposal. Another 500 kg - in thermometers and blood-pressure measuring devices - is to be disposed of by 2012, according to a survey.
The toxic baggage remains, despite the state environment department tasking two agencies with systematic disposal of the metal.
In 2007, the Delhi government ordered the phasing out of equipment containing mercury in hospitals and clinics by 2012. Since then, though many hospitals have switched to mercury-free instruments, they have been grappling with the issue of storage and disposal of discarded equipment.
Mercury reacts with the air to form methylmercury, which, if inhaled, can even kill a person. Direct exposure to mercury through skin or through the gastrointestinal tract can cause nausea, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, hearing loss, speech and visual impairment, chronic diarrhoea, hypothyroidism and abnormal heart rhythm. "If swallowed, it can harm even in small quantities, but the quantity has to be large or exposure prolonged for damage through skin exposure or inhalation," said a senior doctor in the department of medicine, AIIMS.
State health minister Dr AK Walia said, "Mercury-based instruments haven't been bought since the past three years in our hospitals. Mercury from discarded instruments is collected by the hospitals and handed over to the agencies assigned for its disposal.… The agencies give it for industrial use."
Currently, India has 26 tonnes of mercury in use in health instruments, states the survey report of Delhi-based Toxics Link that was released last month.