Once I spent a month with my mother in Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. During my vigil, the administrator of the hospital called a meeting of the administrators of a large number of hospitals in Mumbai and we talked about issues on health care. During the discussion I asked the administrators what was done with the mercury that came out of broken thermometers, dental machinery and blood pressure machines. All of them had the same answer- the mercury was swept out into the general waste. Not one was aware of the hazardous nature of mercury nor that it required special handling.
Mercury is used in large amounts by hospitals but even the basic standards for its safe use, issued by the Indian Standards Institute are neither known nor practiced by any hospital in India. In fact no hospital has ever been accountable to the hazardous Waste Management and Handling Rules. In fact dental amalgam which contains 45-55 % mercury is banned in most countries but is still used widely by India’s dentists. No hospital staff is trained in its handling or disposal.
Mercury equipment is fragile and breaks very easily. Imagine the number of thermometers that break every day in a hospital. No sweepers are given any protective gear while handling it and it goes straight into the incinerable waste or into the general waste that goes to a landfill or through the drains and from there into the groundwater and food.
An average sized hospital would throw out about 3 kg of mercury every year. A city like Delhi throws out about 51 kg – just through dental practices. Add to that the thermometers that break in every house.