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Community strategy concerning mercury

In view of the risks mercury poses for human health and the environment, the European Union (EU) has drawn up a strategy based on six objectives, accompanied by specific actions, aimed mainly at reducing the quantity and the circulation of mercury within the EU and throughout the world as well as human exposure to this substance.

ACT

Communication from the Commission of 28 January 2005: “Community Strategy concerning Mercury” [COM(2005) 20 final – Official Journal C 52 of 2 March 2005].

SUMMARY

Mercury is a substance highly toxic to humans, ecosystems and wildlife. High doses can be fatal, but even relatively low doses can damage the nervous system.

The purpose of this strategy is to reduce the impact of mercury and the risks it poses for the environment and human health.

It is based on the following six objectives:

  • reducing mercury emissions;
  • cutting the supply of and demand for mercury;
  • managing existing amounts of mercury used in products or in storage;
  • protecting against mercury exposure;
  • improving understanding of the mercury problem and its solutions;
  • promoting international action on mercury.

The strategy identifies a number of specific actions for each objective.

Reducing emissions

The strategy aims mainly to evaluate the implementation of existing legislation (particularly the IPPC Directive), to study the cases of certain sources (small combustion plants, dental amalgam) and to encourage the exchange of information on mercury discharges and the best available prevention and reduction techniques.

Cutting supply and demand

The EU is the world’s biggest exporter of mercury. The Commission intends to propose a ban (by 2011) on the export of mercury from the EU. This ban would be accompanied by assistance to develop new areas of activity in the regions concerned. The Commission also wants to restrict the marketing of non-electrical or electronic measuring and control equipment containing mercury (for example thermometers) by amending Directive 76/769/EEC, and to assess the impact of residual mercury use (in particular in dental amalgams).

Managing surpluses and stocks

Since the permanent disposal of mercury is still too expensive and uncertain, the strategy is to store mercury produced by the chlor-alkali industry (the largest holder of mercury in the EU), and to carry out investigations into the future of mercury already in circulation.

Protecting against exposure

The main source of exposure in developed countries is through inhaling mercury vapour from dental amalgam (this will be studied in more detail, see above); furthermore, methyl mercury (its most toxic form) collects especially in the aquatic food chain (fish, seafood, etc.). This is why the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) is to carry out a study into dietary exposure in vulnerable population groups (pregnant women, children, etc.), particularly people who eat a lot of fish and seafood. The strategy also makes provision for regular communication of additional information concerning mercury in food.

Improving understanding

The Commission is seeking to fill the gaps in our knowledge of mercury through research, the priorities of which will be set out in the 7th Research and Technological Development Framework Programme.

Supporting action at international level

The strategy provides for the Community and the Member States to contribute to the work of international fora and activities, as well as the conclusion of bilateral agreements with third countries, to address the mercury problem world-wide.

Background

Although mercury is released by natural sources such as volcanoes, additional releases from human activity, such as coal burning and use in various products, have led to significant increases in threats to the environment and in mercury deposits.

The main uses at global level, namely gold mining (small-scale mining of essentially alluvial and elluvial gold-bearing deposits to extract the ore in powder, flake or pellet form), batteries and accumulators and the chlor-alkali industry, together account for over 75% of mercury consumption. Of these, the only significant user in the EU is the chlor-alkali industry, but this type of emission will be progressively reduced under the IPPC Directive. Mercury use in gold mining is known to be significant in French Guyana (where the French authorities are considering a ban) but not in the European part of the EU. Directive 91/157/EEC limits the use of mercury in batteries and accumulators.

Last updated: 22.10.2010

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