US$134-million initiative aims to eliminate mercury-containing medical devices

US$134-million initiative aims to eliminate mercury-containing medical devices

The Governments of Albania, Burkina Faso, India, Montenegro and Uganda have united to combat chemical pollution today, launching a US$134-million project to eliminate the use of mercury in medical devices.

Used in health-care settings for centuries, mercury is a toxic metal that poses a threat to human health and the environment.

Medical thermometers and sphygmomanometers (devices which measure blood pressure) contain mercury and are harmless as long as they remain intact.

However, when these devices break or are taken out of service, the mercury they contain can escape into the environment where it vaporises, exposing health care workers and patients to harmful fumes. Inhalation can cause damage to the lungs, kidneys and nervous system, while the waste generated can contaminate the immediate area of the spill, as well as a facility’s wastewater.

Such equipment breakages are common.

Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and executed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Phasing out mercury measuring devices in healthcare project will develop and implement nationwide strategies to stop the import, export and manufacture of thermometers and sphygmomanometers, encourage the adoption of accurate, affordable and safe mercury-free alternatives, while improving the management of mercury-containing medical waste.

“We need to look at this in the context of One Health,” said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division. “This initiative is significant, not just for protecting our well-being but because it reduces the impact of healthcare on our shared environment.” 

The five-year project will bring each country in line with international best practices, educating procurement officers on the efficacy of widely available alternative devices and raising awareness amongst manufacturers and the public, as per WHO recommendations and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

Certain digital thermometers can be up to one-third cheaper than their mercury counterparts when considering the entire lifecycle of both instruments, all while maintaining the same level of clinical accuracy.

Director of Public Hygiene at Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Health and Public Hygiene, Dr. Anta Zida, said the country was keenly aware of the need to reform its healthcare sector to meet Burkina Faso’s international obligations.

“Eliminating medical devices containing mercury in healthcare facilities is saving lives and protecting the environment,” she said.

“The healthcare sector serves to protect and improve public health; this project will further demonstrate the important leadership role that the sector has in promoting sustainability,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Climate Change, Environment and Health at WHO.

The project aims to phase out mercury-added thermometers and sphygmomanometers at a rate of 20 percent per year, reducing spillages by 23,350kg and improving the lives of over 1.8 million people.

About the Global Environment Facility

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a multilateral family of funds dedicated to confronting biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution, and supporting land and ocean health. Its financing enables developing countries to address complex challenges and work towards international environmental goals. The partnership includes 186 member governments as well as civil society, Indigenous Peoples, women, and youth, with a focus on integration and inclusivity.

About the UN Environment Programme

UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

About the World Health Organization (WHO)

Dedicated to the well-being of all people and guided by science, the World Health Organization leads and champions global efforts to give everyone, everywhere an equal chance to live a healthy life. Our mission is to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

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