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IP/05/114

Brussels, 31 January 2005

Commission proposes strategy to deal with mercury pollution including a ban on exports

The European Commission proposed a comprehensive strategy against mercury pollution today. High doses of mercury and its compounds can be fatal, but even relatively low amounts can seriously harm the nervous system. There is evidence that mercury pollution, in particular where it exceeds the international accepted safety levels, for example in fish, still affects the health of some European citizens. The commission strategy proposes a series of actions to cut EU and global emissions and use of mercury, including phasing out EU mercury exports by 2011. It also addresses safe storage of mercury decommissioned by EU industry.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “We are determined to take action to reduce emissions of this poison. We will take steps to reduce the demand for mercury products inside the EU. We will also take the lead in tackling the global pool of mercury that exists in our environment. The EU is the biggest global exporter of mercury and we have a responsibility to phase out this trade all together.”

Tackling the mercury problem
EU legislation has reduced use and emissions of mercury in Europe over recent decades. However, there are still high levels of exposure among some European consumers of fish and seafood in which mercury accumulates. This is a particular problem for people living in Mediterranean costal regions
http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/chemicalsafety/contaminants/cadmium_en.htm.

Globally, there are continuing high levels of mercury demand – for which the EU is presently the main supplier. The strategy, therefore, sets out a series of objectives and actions:

  • Banning mercury exports by 2011
  • Global action – input to international activities and cooperation with other countries, e.g. to control mercury trade, emissions, and use in activities like gold mining.
  • Reducing EU demand – restricting the marketing of measuring devices containing mercury (e.g. thermometers), and further investigation of remaining uses (e.g. dental amalgam).
  • Addressing EU surpluses – safe storage of mercury decommissioned by industry, and further study of mercury already circulating in society (e.g. in old products still in use).
  • Reducing EU emissions – review of the effects of current EU law, provision of information to support further emission cuts in Member States, and study of additional control of releases from coal burning.
  • Protecting against EU exposure – further investigation of dietary exposure for women of child-bearing age and children, and provision of additional advice on mercury in food.
  • Improving understanding – research to fill key gaps in mercury knowledge.

Background

Mercury is a natural element, and the total amount that exists cannot be changed. However, human activities can release mercury from relatively stable deposits, allowing it to move through air, water and the food chain, and to convert into more toxic compounds. The main human sources are activities that release the natural mercury content of raw materials (e.g. burning coal), and use of mercury in products (e.g. thermometers) and processes (e.g. gold mining).

The Commission carried out a public stakeholder consultation, and produced an Extended Impact Assessment to identify the most appropriate policies balancing environmental, social and economic effects. The strategy will be presented to the Council and the European Parliament. It also provides the basis of an EU position for international discussion of mercury in the February 2005 Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


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