Towards mercury-free health care in Argentina

October 2013

An international convention protecting human health from mercury gives health workers an opportunity to advance the principle “first, do no harm”.

Like other health workers around the world, staff at the Rivadavia Hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina depended until recently on medical devices that were, paradoxically, essential for enhancing human health yet contained highly toxic material. The traditional device to measure blood pressure (called a sphygmomanometer) and the medical fever thermometer both contain mercury.

A mercury thermometer.
WHO/H. Ruiz

When such devices are broken or discarded, the mercury they contain contaminates the environment. “We did a calculation and realized that the mercury we were dumping during a single week was equivalent to the amount it would take to cause dangerous levels in lake Nahuel Huapi, one of the largest lakes in Patagonia, for a whole year,” explains Dr Mercedes Zarlenga, who is responsible for neonatal services at Rivadavia Hospital. Subsequently, the hospital – followed by all medical facilities across Argentina – began phasing out medical devices containing mercury.

Dangers of mercury

“The mercury we were dumping during a single week was equivalent to the amount it would take to cause dangerous levels in lake Nahuel Huapi, one of the largest lakes in Patagonia, for a whole year.”

Dr Mercedes Zarlenga, Rivadavia Hospital, Argentina

WHO has identified mercury as one of the top ten chemicals that can endanger health. The metal can have harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems and on the lungs and kidneys; excess exposure can even be fatal. In addition, mercury is quite harmful to foetuses. “Babies who were exposed to even relatively low doses of mercury in the womb may experience intellectual delays during childhood,” says Dr Ana Boischio, Advisor on Toxicology at WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas/the Pan American Health Organization.

In January 2013, acknowledging these risks, 147 governments agreed on draft text for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which aims to protect human health and the environment from emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The convention is scheduled to be adopted at a diplomatic conference that will take place in Japan on 10 and 11 October.

WHO stand on mercury-free measuring devices in health care

In the context of the global movement on mercury, WHO has been working actively to encourage all its Member States to phase out mercury-containing medical measuring devices. Since 2008, Argentina, India, Latvia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Senegal and Viet Nam have been participating in the Global Health Care Waste Project implemented by WHO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Health Care Without Harm coalition. The project aims to improve the management of medical waste and to minimize the release of mercury and other pollutants into the environment.

Argentina has taken especially vigorous measures, including an initiative to reduce the use of mercury-containing amalgam for restorative dental care. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that dentists worldwide used between 240 and 300 tons of mercury for dental fillings in 2005. The Minamata Convention calls for a “phasing-down” of dental amalgam.

At the Rivadavia Hospital staff have now switched to digital thermometers, after an internal research project found them to be just as accurate and easy to sterilize as mercury thermometers. To their surprise they also discovered there would be a long-term financial benefit. Digital thermometers may be more expensive but they are ultimately more durable.