– Placed on 40 days treatment with long list of side effects
By Abena Rockcliffe-Campbell
Workers attached to the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), who suffered mercury poisoning, are looking to take their employer—the government—to court.
“We are planning to meet with an attorney soon because what we are going through is unfair,” one worker said.
The GGMC employees said that the medications that government imported have finally arrived and workers were issued the medication on Thursday last.
Employees were reportedly given enough medication to last for 40 days. But what is of serious concern is the long list of side effects those who have taken them have allegedly suffered.
These include: headaches, rash, hypertension, abdominal cramps, bloating, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach burns, metallic or sour taste in the mouth, loss of appetite and low energy.
The employees were individually given two sets of tablets. These are for “on days and off days.” Tablets for on days are those that are supposed to remove the mercury from their systems.
“The off days are when we are supposed to use vitamins; so we have the immune builder, the bone builder, the vitamin C and some other vitamins.”
Workers were told to use vitamins on the first four days of the treatment. Then on the fifth day, they are to use the medication that is supposed to remove the mercury. “Then it will continue with that on and off sequence.” Workers say they are not worried about having to use the vitamins, “it is the tablet to remove the mercury that has the long list of side effects.”
“We were told that that tablet will take out the bad cells but it can also cause damage to the good ones so that is why we need the vitamins, to help rebuild.”
Employees explained that after the 40 days treatment they will have to undergo another test to see if the treatment worked.
“We are going through all of this and we still have not heard anything about the removal of the lab. We do not care about experts, we do not want experts to come and tell lies. The lab got to move from in the compound. When we go through all this, we have to come back and expose ourselves to mercury again. It is clear that they do not intend to take this situation serious so we plan to move to court.”
Despite going public last week with pronouncements that mercury emissions at the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) laboratory on Brickdam were within “normal” limits, Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman has appointed a team of “experts” to look into the state of the facility where burning of the amalgam is done.
The Ministry of Natural Resources said, “Following recent incidents of elevated mercury emissions within the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission’s compound and its environs, and the potential risk posed to workers and residents, Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. Raphael Trotman, today appointed a Committee to review the functions of the Guyana Gold Board’s laboratory.”
The Ministry said that the team has been tasked with examining all aspects of the functionality of the Gold Board’s laboratory, “and to make recommendations for its efficient, secure, and environmentally safe operations including, its relocation. The appointment of the Committee follows on a public commitment made by the Minister to have a team of experts review the operations of the Gold Board’s laboratory to ascertain whether the laboratory is functioning in a safe and environmentally friendly manner, and if not, to have recommendations made for its improved service. The Committee has also been mandated to examine suitable and secure sites for the relocation of the laboratory and to make recommendations accordingly.”
The committee will be headed by Dr. David Singh, who holds a doctorate in Chemistry and is currently the Executive Director of Conservation International – Guyana. The team also includes Keith John, retired Assistant Commissioner of Police, and one member each, from the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission and the Guyana Gold Board. Work will commence on Wednesday and a report is to be submitted within one month.
Last week, Trotman said that a report by contractor Kaizen Environmental Services (Guyana) Limited said that air quality monitoring on March 28th at 10 locations in the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission compound showed that levels were within the United States Occupational Safety & Health Administration, eight-hour Permissible Exposure Limit.
Concerns by staff of the agency about the impact of mercury on their health had led to the commissioning of the analysis.
There was no public announcement when GGMC workers were found with elevated levels of mercury in their blood. However, after media reports, GGMC admitted the incident.
Workers complained that despite many of them being in the danger, the matter was not being treated with urgency.
But then GGMC and Gold Board sent out a joint statement acknowledging that there was a problem with mercury emissions but said that there is disagreement that matters are at a “crisis stage” and that many are “in danger zone” as was reported by this newspaper.
The agencies said that while there is indeed a situation where the typical treatments are presently unavailable, “the GGMC has made other arrangements to address this shortfall.”
Workers claimed that there might have been at least one death associated with the inhalation of mercury emissions.
Staffers said that last January, a carpenter attached to GGMC died of kidney failure. That complication is believed to have been associated with high exposure to mercury. “He was a fairly young man; he worked for years at the carpentry workshop which is close to the lab where the burning is done.”
Staffers said that for over six years, no testing of workers has been done, “so the man might have had high levels of mercury in his blood but never knew.”
Kaieteur News also learnt that only about five of the 55 workers recently tested were found to have safe levels of mercury in the blood.
The industrial nurse attached to GGMC told the workers that 0-6 microgram per litre (mcg/l) is safe; 7-10 mcg/l is high, and anything more than 11 mcg/l would be considered dangerous.
However, the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) has advised workers that they consider 3mcg/l and above to be worthy of medical attention.
Hardly any of the workers who were tested were found to have under 2mcg/l. While most workers fell in the range of 6 to 12, alarmingly some persons are as high as 21.
NIS has told the workers that they will treat the issue as an industrial accident in terms of exposure and negligence.
If mercury vapour is inhaled, it is easily absorbed by the body, where it first gets into the lungs then into the blood and the brain. The nerve poison can cause sleep disorders, agitation, and paralysis.
Effects of sustained exposures to high levels of mercury emissions include disturbances in vision, hearing and speech, numbness in fingers and toes and lack of coordination and muscle weakness. Mercury also proves to cause a serious health risk to unborn children whose mothers have been too exposed.
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