Mercury emissions from cremations to be halved

Levels of toxic mercury emitted into the atmosphere by crematoria are to be cut by half, following improved regulatory measures announced by the government this week.

Mercury, which accumulates in air and water, can be harmful to the brain, kidneys and nervous system, and can also cause birth defects in unborn children.

Cremations are estimated to be responsible for up to 16% of all mercury emissions in the UK, due to the melting down of mercury fillings, and these emissions are predicted to increase by two-thirds by 2020 unless action is taken soon.

However, the government’s new statutory guidance will mean that all crematoria would be required to install special equipment that will halve mercury emissions by 2012.

Under the new regulations, any new crematoria will have to be fitted with mercury control equipment, but those conducting less than 750 cremations each year will be given until 2012 to meet the requirements.

Other countries, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, have already taken steps to cut back and regulate mercury emissions from crematoria.

Britain has also signed up to an international treaty, the UN Heavy Metals Protocol, which aims to reduce emissions of harmful metals such as mercury. It has already achieved one of its obligations, to bring mercury emissions back down below 1990 levels, from 31.6 tonnes to 8 tonnes by 2002.

But Environment Minister Lord Whitty warned that more still needed to be done.

“By 2020, crematoria will be by far the biggest single contributor to mercury emissions in this country,” he said. “Our latest decision, on which we consulted widely, strikes a balance between crematoria cost concerns and the need to control emissions of a substance that can damage human health and the environment.”

By Jane Kettle

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