EU mercury ban welcome, but not exhaustive

Proposals to ban on the use of mercury in thermometers in Europe received a mixed reaction from environmental and health NGOs today.

Mercury is a highly toxic chemical that builds up in food, causing serious damage to the human nervous system, even in small doses.

The plans form a part of a wider EU strategy aimed at minimising mercury emissions by phasing out European exports of the chemical by 2011 as well as reducing European demand (see related story). Today’s proposals are concerned with cutting internal European demand for mercury.

Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen responsible for enterprise and industry policy said: “This measure will reduce the amount of toxic mercury entering the waste stream. This is good for our citizen’s health and the environment. At the same time we create a more coherent and stable legal framework for industry which will be encouraged to develop suitable alternatives.”

The move would cut out 80-90% of an estimated 33 tonnes of mercury used for measuring devices in the EU every year. Today, many thermometers still end up in landfill, leading to mercury slowly leaching into the soil and groundwater and building up in food, especially fish.

While NGOs have broadly welcomed the proposals, they also criticised their scope as not exhaustive enough.

“In the end, mercury use will only be eliminated in measuring devices for consumers and fever thermometers for doctors and veterinarians,” said Lisette van Vliet, Toxics Policy advisor for the medical coalition Health Care Without Harm (HCWH).

“All other measuring and control devices for professional use, like room or equipment thermometers, will not be mercury-free, despite available alternatives. For example, hospitals will continue to use blood pressure gauges and gastro-intestinal tubes containing mercury,” she said.

The European Commission argues that the proposed measures would cover 80-90% of all mercury used in measuring devices, and that specialist medical applications are excluded because of a lack of adequate substitutes.

But NGOs say that the exempted uses have not been examined properly. They call for a mercury ban across the board with permits issued only in cases where no viable alternative exists.

“The European Commission decided to go for a quick fix,” said a spokesman for HCWH. “The Commission does not know how many other uses are out there. A complete ban would have forced these out into the open, and made sure mercury is only used when it is absolutely necessary.”

Individual EU states, such as the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and several hospital associations have already banned the use of mercury in all measuring equipment, including professional uses, with several exemptions where no substitutes exist.

“Actions related to mercury measuring devices and instruments are necessary because of their significant use within the EU and worldwide. The estimated 166 tonnes of annual mercury consumption in measuring and control devices represents a tremendous opportunity for lowering worldwide mercury demand. If mercury is so toxic that it is being eliminated – in much smaller quantities – from electrical and electronic equipment right now, in line with the RoHS Directive, it is absurd to leave it in so many measuring devices and instruments that can easily be replaced by mercury-free alternatives,” said Michael Bender, Northern Coordinator of the Ban Mercury Working Group.

Use in thermometers and measuring devices is just one of the sources of mercury pollution covered by the EU Mercury Strategy. Other sources include coal burning, which releases mercury into the air, and processes such as gold mining.

By Goska Romanowicz

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