The world could be facing an epidemic of poisonings by highly toxic metals you’d be forgiven for thinking were a hazard of yesteryear – and all in the name of the environment. The problem arises from new uses for the toxins in “green” products or from a disregard for health and safety in recycling and reuse operations.
Lead is the most notable comeback kid. Use of the metal, which can cause cancer, neurological, reproductive and a host of other problems, has increased dramatically in recent years. And increased production of electronic equipment worldwide is set to see the use of lead soar over the next decade.
The hazards come both in lead’s production and use, and in the profitable but often poorly controlled practice of recycling – over 50 per cent of lead used today is recycled.
And now it looks like mercury, the metal that turned hatters’ mad, is to have a major revival. The long term downward trend in mercury production stalled in 2006 and 2007. Latest figures, published in the 2009 edition of the authoritative World Mineral Production, show 1.4 million kilograms were produced in each of these years, a figure the report suggests is an underestimate.
As the mercury use in medical equipment declines on environmental grounds – it’s been the subject of a long-running and successful campaign by Health Care Without Harm – the same metal is being pressed into routine use in soon to be mandatory low energy lightbulbs, supposedly also on environmental grounds.
Old style incandescent lightbulbs are being phased out across the European Union by 2012. But the mercury risk from the “environmentally friendly” alternative is so apparent the UK government recommends evacuating the room for 15 minutes if you break one.
That’s not an option if your job involves recycling mercury-containing lights, as workers at the UK-based Electrical Waste Recycling Group found to their cost.
Workers at the Huddersfield factory became sick with mercury poisoning in a “blatant” examples of management neglect of health and safety. Staff at the company, which recycles hazardous electrical equipment including TVs and light tubes – old style fluorescent tubes also contain mercury – suffered headaches, stomach upsets and mood swings.
Mercury poisoning can damage the brain and other organs, leading to personality changes and even low level exposure may cause brain and other neurological cancers.
On 23 November 2009, at Bradford Crown Court, company director Craig Thompson, 38, admitted two charges of failing to discharge his duty in relation to hazardous substances. The company, which is one of the UK’s leading recycling firms, said it would be pleading guilty to all 10 health and safety charges. The director and the firm will be sentenced in January 2010.
At an earlier hearing at Huddersfield Magistrates’ Court, the breaches were described as “very grave offences indeed” by Health and Safety Executive inspector Jeanne Morton. She added: “This is a blatant example and one of the worst failings of health and safety management seen for a long time.”
The factory filtration system was not working and had pumped air containing mercury vapour and lead into the factory office, she said. Tests on 34 workers revealed that 20 showed mercury “way above the limit expected in the general population.” Thompson knew about the high levels of mercury as he was given readings carried out by his own staff but he “ignored” them and the poisoning continued, the court was told.
Some workers were hospitalised. Ryan Wilkes, who worked at the firm for 10 months, began passing blood after just six weeks in the job and suffered headaches and mood swings. “I had tests and they found I had 57 times more mercury than should be there,” he told local paper the Yorkshire Post. “I was hospitalised for two nights. It is not something you expect an employer to put you through.”
Colleague Andrew Makison, 26, suffered anxiety attacks, a possible symptom of mercury poisoning. He believed the exposure may have damaged his brain and is seeking medical advice. “Friends say I keep blanking out. I may have something wrong.” He added: “Production was more important than health and safety.”
Mr Makison, who carried out mercury readings at the plant, said he alerted Thompson about the “off the scale” figures. “I got told off for talking about mercury,” he added. “A colleague was pregnant and was worried about her baby. She was in tears.” The woman has since given birth and tests are still being carried out to determine if the child has suffered any damage.
The clamour to go green is seeing the introduction to workplaces of risks from new hazards, old hazards and entirely unassessed potential hazards, and from there into the environment and consumer products. But policymakers are demonstrating a serious case of green fever, talking environmental talk without much thought about what they are really doing and why.
Green jobs are a great idea. Less environmental pollution is essential. Energy saving measures must be introduced to preserve resources and stem climate change.
But “green” initiatives that lead to increased use of highly toxic substances and an upturn in the risk from occupational and environmental exposures are not green, they are reckless. It’s not so much a case of a lack of joined up thinking. It’s a lack of considered thought at all.