DENR bats for chemical safety in schools

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The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) recently urged all primary schools in the country to make chemical safety a top priority, sounding the alarm about the potential health risks of mercury and lead to schoolchildren.

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“Chemical safety and security must be the priority of schools. Administrators, supervisors, teachers, and students must work together to ensure that chemicals are handled with precaution and care,” DENR Secretary Ramon Paje said during the launching of “Lead and Mercury Safe Schools for Bright and Healthy Children” campaign.

Paje, along with European Union Ambassador Guy Ledoux, Dr. Jocelyn Marcial of the Department of Education (DepED) – National Capital Region (NCR), DepEd-NCR Chief for Elementary Schools Division Dr. Genia Santos, and representatives of environmental advocacy groups signed a “Solidarity Statement” enjoining stakeholders to work together toward the elimination of lead and mercury exposures in primary schools nationwide.

He said that with the help of the EU’s SWITCH-Asia Program, the Ecowaste Coalition and the International POPs (persistent organic pollutants) Elimination Network (IPEN), the government could strengthen the capacities of schools in the management of lead, mercury and other hazardous chemicals.

The Solidarity Statement, Paje added, will help “promote greater inter-agency and multi-stakeholder support towards lead and mercury-safe school environments for Filipino children.”

Paje noted that the investments being put in the effort are an expression of the Aquino Administration’s fervor to channel the gains in the country’s economy towards building generations of Filipinos “that are both physically healthy and intellectually vibrant.”

“The true wealth of a nation can only be truly realized through a healthy and educated generation and citizenry,” said Paje.

The environment chief expressed hope the undertaking would “inspire more schools to commit towards a safe and healthy environment for healthy and bright kids.”

Commonwealth Elementary School was chosen as the venue for the campaign launch, having been the regional champion in the primary school category of the DENR’s National Search for Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Schools in 2011 and 2013, and national champion in the same category for the Meralco Energy Leadership Awards.

Lead and mercury are toxic heavy metals being regulated by the DENR. Exposure to these chemicals could cause irreversible neurological damage among children, leading to a decrease in intelligence and an increase in violent behavior.

The DENR had earlier issued chemical control orders (CCOs) for mercury and lead to limit, regulate, restrict, and even prohibit their importation, distribution, use, manufacture and disposal.

For his part, Ledoux complemented the government’s aggressiveness in dealing with the problem and described the recent CCO issuances to limit the use of the chemicals on consumer products as a “breakthrough” and “effective intervention.”

He said that the “dangers of lead exposure in the Philippines are real,” citing an EU-sponsored study in 2013 which revealed that more than 60 percent of paint samples collected in various parts of the country were with “worryingly high concentrations.”

“The situation is well-known and I would like to congratulate Secretary Paje for his rapid and effective intervention to address the issue. The recent CCO (issued) by the DENR to limit the use of lead in consumer products is a breakthrough,” said Ledoux.

Despite its many uses in mining, pulp and paper, and dental amalgams, among others, mercury is extremely poisonous to humans. The human body quickly absorbs mercury through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation of mercury vapor.

To help address mercury in lamp wastes, the DENR has developed guidelines under Republic Act (RA) No. 6969 or the Toxic Substances, Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act and “special wastes” under RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act.

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