Brussels, 25 September 2008
The European Commission welcomes the final adoption by the Council today of legislation banning all exports of mercury from the European Union. The export ban is a key part of the EU’s strategy for reducing the global supply of mercury and thereby limiting emissions of the highly toxic heavy metal into the environment. The legislation requires mercury that is no longer used in the chlor-alkali industry – the chemical industry sector responsible for chlorine and caustic soda production – or that is produced in certain other industrial operations, to be put into safe storage once the export ban takes effect in March 2011.
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Mercury poses a threat to human health and the environment in the European Union and globally. This important piece of legislation will protect citizens by significantly reducing exposure to this highly toxic metal. Let us hope that other countries will follow our example and support our goal of cutting the global supply of this dangerous substance.”
Dangers of mercury exposure
Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. Mercury persists in the environment, where it can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury readily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children is of greatest concern.
Use of mercury is declining at both global and EU levels. Yet some significant uses remain. Globally, the main uses of mercury are in small-scale gold mining, the chlor-alkali industry and production of vinyl-chloride monomer, the basis of PVC plastic. In the EU only the chlor-alkali industry remains a significant user, and it is progressively phasing out the use of mercury-containing cells in its production of chlorine. The next most significant use in the EU is in dental amalgam.
EU mercury exports
Although the EU stopped all forms of mercury mining in 2001, it is the world’s biggest exporter – responsible for up to a quarter of the global mercury supply. The new legislation is designed to ensure that several thousand tonnes of mercury will be taken out of circulation and stored in a way preventing its release. Euro Chlor, a federation representing the European chlor-alkali manufacturing industry, has made a voluntary commitment to ensure safe storage of mercury from the industry and compliance with all relevant national and EU legislation.
The Commission launched the EU’s mercury strategy – a comprehensive plan addressing mercury pollution both in the EU and globally – in January 2005. It consists of 20 measures to reduce mercury emissions, cut supply and demand and protect against exposure, especially to methylmercury found in fish. The export ban and safe storage of surplus mercury are major aspects of the strategy.