EU must tighten own policies to lead on global mercury control
Delays in adopting a community strategy for mercury by the European Commission must be addressed immediately, concerned environment and health groups have stated.
The delay seems to have been caused by lingering concerns within the Commission over the possible legal implications of trade restrictions, originally proposed by DG Environment in the draft strategy which was supported by NGOs.
But according to the European Environment Bureau (EEB), any such delays will weaken the EU's position in the upcoming global debate on a policy to phase out mercury altogether in order to protect the environment and human health, scheduled to take place at the UNEP Governing Council in February 2005.
EU Member States, and Spain in particular, currently have the biggest mercury mining and trading operation in the world, with the global pollutant then being exported to developing countries such as India and Brazil, where it can then be used in a much less regulated way.
A coalition of NGOs, including the EEB, Greenpeace and the Ban Mercury Working Group, a responsible EU mercury strategy cannot exist without any clear policy being put in place to prevent such exports.
The coalition believes that, as a minimum, the EU's community mercury strategy should include:
Although the EU is actively decreasing mercury use at home, the coalition states that it is still contributing heavily to environmental and health-related damage in developing countries.
"This double standard approach should stop," John Hontelez, secretary general of the EEB, stated. "Options that would allow continued export are not acceptable. The EU should finally address this global problem."
Spokesman for Toxics Link India, Ravi Agarwal confirmed that exposure to mercury was still a serious problem for many people living in India.
"The EU should take the lead in helping India and others to reduce demand, instead of allowing as much as 15,000 tonnes of mercury to be sent to developing countries, where it contaminates our people, local communities and the global food supply," he warned.
Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic, cause damage to the central nervous system and are particularly harmful to foetal development, according to the EEB. It is also thought to have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, causing tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes and headaches.
Like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury builds up in the fatty tissues of animals, particularly in certain types of fish (see related story), and takes a long time to break down in the environment, contaminating water and soil (see related story).
Mercury can also travel long distances through the atmosphere and contaminate global food supplies at levels that pose a significant risk to human health, as recognised by UNEP's Global Mercury Assessment 2002.
"There is an immediate need for the total phase-out of mercury mining and trading though a sustainable European strategy," stated Michael Bender, spokesman for the Ban Mercury Working Group.
"A strong EU position should be submitted to the UNEP meeting to kick off discussions towards the development of a new global, legally binding instrument with the ultimate goal of zero use and emissions."
By Jane Kettle