Based on UN study on disposal of biomedical waste

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has launched a project to phase out use of mercury in private healthcare organisations. The project is based on a study done by the United Nations Development Programme on disposal of biomedical waste in developing countries.

A dozen private healthcare institutions, including hospitals, dental clinics and blood banks in the city, are part of a project to replace outdated equipment, said T.N. Ravishankar, national secretary, Indian Medical Association, College of General Practitioners.

According to doctors, traditionally the thermometer is placed in the armpit of children to prevent them from chewing on the instrument thus leading to accidental ingestion of mercury. However, studies done by various organisations have found that it is not accidental ingestion as much as improper disposal of mercury that causes extensive damage. Mercury from damaged thermometers and BP apparatus when disposed of without proper precaution could contaminate the environment.

Organic mercury compound is a highly toxic substance which could contaminate the groundwater, soil and food chain. Depending on the dosage and level of mercury poisoning, it could cause vision, hearing, speech impairment, respiratory ailments, neurological and gastrointestinal problems and lead to death. Children and pregnant mothers are particularly vulnerable.

TNPCB officials said several workshops were conducted to raise awareness of the need to shift from conventional equipment to technologically improved versions. The workshops were a result of the policy framework document prepared in 2007 by the Union Ministry of Health for providing guidance on the processes for infection control and biomedical waste management.

Doctors say in government hospitals digital thermometers are increasingly used, but aneroid BP devices are yet to catch up.

P. Ramachandran, Director, Institute of Child Health, said though official instructions have not been received, the new purchases for thermometers and BP devices comply with the decision to opt for internationally accepted devices.

Putting to rest fears of inaccuracy, he said the digital thermometer is durable, sensitive and reads the temperature accurately. The aneroid BP apparatus (sphygmomanometer) also provides accurate reading but is yet to be accepted by all doctors. It is not the cost as much as inexperience of using the new devices, healthcare professionals say.

Secretary of Nursing Council G. Josephine says nursing students are taught about the new technological devices as part of their education though there is no emphasis on the need to shift to newer devices.

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