Patients admitted in Delhi’s hospitals have more reasons to worry than the immediate ailments they are admitted with. For the first time, a study has found that the air inside two of the city’s most famous private hospitals is choked with vapours of toxic heavy metal mercury, inhaling which causes a host of long-term damage to the body like retardation of the nervous system and kidney failure.
The study by Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link found that by routine handling, nearly 70 thermometers break every month in each of the more-than-300-bedded hospitals. As a result, the levels of mercury vapours in the air inside these hospitals are much higher than the permissible international standards, posing huge risk to patients. This is because mercury is the only heavy metal that evaporates even in room temperature and pollutes the air.
"The staff and patients are being unsuspecting victims of this contamination which will lead to severe consequences in the long run. In India, we are yet to have a standard on mercury for healthcare sector, which uses this metal the most," said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link on Wednesday while releasing the study — Mercury in Hospital Indoor Air: Staff and Patients at Risk.
Mercury in hospitals is present in not just the thermometers, but in blood pressure-measuring instruments and fluorescent lights as well. The study found dangerous levels of mercury in all departments like general wards, nursing stations, storage rooms and the likes, in both hospitals.
For instance, in one hospital, the air in the room for nurses was detected with an average mercury concentration of 1.98 micrograms per cubic-meter, much higher than the US permissible limit of 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter. The storage room of another hospital was more choked with a perilous 3.78 micrograms per cubic meter.
"The dental room in this hospital was also choked with 3.11 micrograms per cubic meter of mercury. This is because mercury is heavily used in dental fillings," said Prashant Pastore, a co-author of the study.
As an extension of the study, ten hair samples of nurses and doctors of these hospitals were analysed only to find that all samples contained high levels of mercury. "No level of mercury is safe for the human body, especially for pregnant women," Pastore said. The NGO had sent the results of these samples to a larger study comprising 266 similar samples from 21 countries. "More than 94 per cent of the samples were found contaminated," he added.
The NGO did not wish the names of the two hospitals be published saying both hospitals had initiated "responsible mercury management programmes". It can, however, be mentioned that one hospital is in west Delhi and the other is in the north. At least one of these hospitals has around 3,000 medical and non-medical staff in it.
"Data from two big hospitals are an indicator of all the big and small hospitals exposing this occupational hazard to their workers," Ravi Agarwal said.
Responding to the study, medical officer of Centre for Environment and Occupational Health Dr Neeraj Gupta told Hindustan Times that mercury was one of the major causes for concerns as occupational hazard in health sector. "Apart from nervous system, it also affects the kidney and it has been found to be causing autism in children as well," he said.