THE DEPARTMENT of Health (DOH) has ordered the gradual phaseout of the use of mercury in healthcare equipment and facilities.

Mercury is a highly toxic, volatile, naturally occurring heavy metal that is fatal if inhaled and absorbed by the skin.

According to Dr. Rodrigo Rodrigo, chief pathologist of the Clinical Chemistry Section of the UST Hospital Laboratory, exposure to mercury may cause difficulty in breathing, poor memory, and insanity. Other risks identified by the DOH are tremors, impaired hearing and vision, paralysis, difficulty of sleeping, and emotional instability.

Aside from thermometers, mercury is also found in sphygmomanometers, laboratory staining solutions and preservatives, feeding tubes, and gastrointestinal diagnostic machines.

The DOH order, issued by Health Sec. Francisco Duque III last July 30, instructs health care personnel to immediately discontinue the distribution of mercury thermometers to patients in their discharge kits and to submit an inventory of all mercury-bearing devices.

The first administrative order of its kind released in Southeast Asia also orders healthcare personnel to create a mercury elimination program and a mercury management team to be supervised by the hospital waste management committee, which will be in charge of minimizing and totally eliminating the toxic metal in healthcare facilities such as hospitals, infirmaries, birthing homes, and clinics.

Upon disposal of the mercury-containing products, healthcare facilities will have to contact the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is responsible for the storage of mercury, as it is impossible to convert the metal into safer forms.

The UST Hospital said steps have been taken to comply with the administrative order.

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Replacing mercury

The DOH, through Dr. Edwin Sanchez, chairman of the committee on the phasing-out of mercury in all Philippine health care facilities and institutions which drafted the administrative order, said various cases of mercury poisoning have prompted authorities to order the phaseout.

“Reported cases of mercury poisoning from three different schools in 2006 and the involvement of mercury in an explosion in Mount Diwalwal in Davao del Norte in 2005 alerted the department of the need to gradually stop using mercury,” Sanchez told the Varsitarian.

In a hospital setting, the continued use of mercury places hospital staff, especially biomedical unit personnel, at high risk of poisoning, he said.

“Biomedical unit personnel maintain and repair hospital equipment such as sphygmomanometers. Because of their job, they are prone to poisoning due to their increased chances of contact with broken equipment which may leak with mercury,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said mercury-containing thermometers and sphygmomanometers should be replaced with digital versions.

However, Sanchez said that some hospital equipment such as gastrointestinal tubes do not have any alternatives while some substitutes are expensive.

“This is why we have to do this gradually. We still have to allocate funds for substitutes. For now, we are focusing on thermometers because it is the easiest to replace,” he said. Alena Pias P. Bantolo

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