Commission proposes strategy against mercury pollution

The European Commission has proposed a strategy to try and minimise mercury pollution both in the EU and globally. The strategy includes measures to cut EU and global emissions, phase out EU mercury exports, reduce internal EU demand, and to ensure the safe storage of decommissioned mercury.

Mercury is a highly toxic chemical. Even in relatively small doses it can affect the nervous system and can change in the environment into a compound called methyl-mercury. This can pass both through the placental barrier and blood-brain barrier to inhibit mental development, even before birth. This compound can accumulate in certain fish and seafood, so can form part of people’s diet.

The EU is a major exporter of mercury, providing about 1,000 tonnes of the current global supply of 3,600 tonnes per year. It is used in a variety of applications including dental amalgam, measuring and control equipment such as thermometers, and fluorescent lamps. It is also part of the production process in the chlor-alkali sector, which produces chlorine and caustic soda.

Mercury can also be produced through recycling these materials and products as a secondary product alongside the production of another material such as zinc or tin.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, said: “We are determined to take action to reduce emissions of this poison. We will take steps to reduce the demand for mercury products inside the EU. We will also take the lead in tackling the global pool of mercury that exists in our environment. The EU is the biggest global exporter of mercury and we have a responsibility to phase out this trade all together.”

Current legislation makes emissions of mercury from major industrial sources subject to IPPC rules, while the use of mercury in many applications such as batteries, electrical equipment, pesticides, cosmetics and wood preservatives, is either prohibited or severely restricted.

The new strategy will take measures to phase out mercury export by 2011, ending the EU’s role as world’s largest mercury supplier, and thus reducing global supply. In addition it will prohibit the marketing of measuring devices containing mercury for consumer use and health care, and investigate the few remaining uses of mercury in the EU such as dental amalgam.

The Commission estimates that the export ban will have only a minimal direct economic cost, but will lead to some costs in terms of requiring storage of the surplus mercury of around €1.5 million per year.

By David Hopkins

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