Remove mercury from more industries, say NGOs

Mercury may have been banned from European thermometers this week but campaigners have turned up heat on the toxic metal and are pushing for wider restrictions.

On Tuesday the European Parliament voted to ban mercury from thermometers, which account for 30 tonnes of the 33 tonnes used annually in the production of measuring devices in the EU.

The overwhelming majority of MEPs voted in favour of the ban, with just 21 voting against.

Barometers, in which most of the remaining mercury is used, were granted a reprieve.

The European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based lobby group representing over 100 NGOs and what it refers to as ‘citizen’s organisations’, has called on the EC to now turn its attention to another major source of mercury in the continent, the chlorine industry.

According to the EEB, around half of Europe’s chlorine plants use mercury in the production of the widely-used chemical and this results in tonnes of the metal being discharged into the environment every year.

This contributes to the accumulation of mercury in the atmosphere and wildlife, particularly sea fish, which in turn leads to consumers being exposed to serious health risks, particularly dangerous for pregnant women and developing children.

The EEB argues that the mercury-cell process is outdated and inefficient and less dangerous methods of producing mercury without resorting to the use of mercury are available. Investment in new infrastructure is required from the chemicals industry, it says.

A lack of industry reporting and monitoring by regulators has served to conceal the levels of mercury discharged by chlorine producers and the EEB has commissioned research which suggests they might be as high as those of the largest coal fire power stations, around five times higher than official estimates.

“We must immediately stop using mercury to produce chlorine. It’s archaic and environmentally-hazardous. Non-mercury alternatives have been commercially available since the ’80s”, said Elena Lymberidi, EEB’s zero mercury campaign coordinator.

“The study concludes that the total cost of converting all EU mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants to mercury-free operation is far outweighed by the economic and health benefits. The mercury-cell process isn’t the ‘Best Available Technique’ (BAT) for the chlor-alkali sector, required under the Integrated Pollution Prevention & Control (IPPC) Directive.

“Authorities should therefore deny new operating permits if they don’t incorporate BAT.”

The EEB is calling for:

  • Phase out the mercury-cell process as soon as possible, and by 2010 at the latest, as part of an EU initiative or national commitment, (in contrast to industry’s 2020 commitment)

  • Safely store surplus mercury from decommissioned plants so it can’t be re-sold

  • Remove mercury contamination resulting from plant operation and waste disposal

  • Deny operating permits (under the IPPC Directive) to plants using obsolete non-BAT technology

  • Prepare full guidelines for decommissioning plants and safely storing all mercury

  • Ensure continuous, comprehensive and independently-verified monitoring of mercury emissions from plants, on-site, and at site perimeters, and full accounting for any unexplained loss of mercury from the process

  • Improved monitoring of factory workers’ and local residents’ health.

    Sam Bond

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