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Questions & Answers on the Mercury Strategy

European Commission - MEMO/05/30   31/01/2005

Other available languages: FR DE

MEMO/05/30

Brussels, 31 January 2005

Questions & Answers on the Mercury Strategy

1) What is mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring element. It is familiar to many people as the silver-coloured liquid which expands and contracts in a thermometer to show the temperature. Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at normal room temperature and pressure. It is sometimes called “quicksilver”. It is indestructible (it can be transformed into a less problematic compound, but this chemical process is complex and costly). This means that there is a "global pool" of mercury circulating in society and the environment - between air, water, sediments, soil and living things.

2) Where does mercury come from?

Because mercury occurs naturally in the earth’s crust, some is released by natural sources like volcanoes. It can also be produced as a liquid metal by processing a naturally-occurring ore called cinnabar (mercury sulphide). Releases from the use of mercury in products and from other human activities, like coal burning, increase the degree to which we and the environment are exposed.

3) Why is mercury a problem?

Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans and the environment. Large amounts can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system.

Mercury can change in the environment into a more complex and harmful compound called methylmercury. Methylmercury passes both the placental barrier and the blood-brain barrier, and so can inhibit children’s potential mental development even before birth.

Methylmercury accumulates in certain fish and seafood (and particularly large predatory fish), which may form part of people’s diet. Although most people in Europe appear to within internationally accepted safe levels for exposure to methylmercury, there is evidence that some people are around or above these levels, especially in coastal areas of Mediterranean countries and the Arctic.

4) Where and to what extent is mercury still produced and used in the EU?

The EU is a major exporter of mercury, providing about 1,000 tonnes of the current total global supply of around 3,600 tonnes per year. The EU's mercury export is mainly surplus mercury from the EU chlor-alkali sector, which is phasing out the use of mercury, and is mostly provided through a company in Spain.

The same company has also produced mercury in Almadén (Spain) where major deposits of cinnabar have been a major source of mercury since Roman times. However, production there has been temporarily stopped since 2003. Outside the EU, the main countries that produce mercury from cinnabar are Kyrgyzstan, Algeria and China.

Mercury can also be produced by recycling waste materials, such as dental amalgam or old fluorescent light tubes. Sometimes mercury is generated as a “secondary” product alongside the production of another material, such as zinc or tin. These recycling and secondary production activities take place in a number of EU countries.

Mercury is used in a variety of applications. In the EU-15, the demand in 2003 was around 300 tonnes. The uses include dental amalgam, measuring and control equipment (e.g. thermometers), and fluorescent lamps (in which use of mercury increases energy efficiency). Mercury is also used as part of the production process by some industrial plants in the chlor-alkali sector, which produces chlorine and caustic soda, but they are in the process of phasing it out.

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5) What has existing EU and national legislation tackling mercury achieved so far?

There is a comprehensive body of existing EU and national legislation tackling various aspects of the mercury problem. The main areas are concerned with emissions and use of mercury. As a result of these measures and certain other factors (e.g. changes in fuel use), European emissions of mercury have been cut considerably in recent decades, falling by about 60% between 1990 and 2000.

Emissions of mercury from major industrial sources are now subject to EU Directive 96/61/EC on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), which had to be implemented in the Member States by October 1999, with a period of until October 2007 to bring existing installations into compliance.

The coverage of the IPPC Directive includes the EU’s chlor-alkali industry, which is phasing out the use of mercury in its production process.

Mercury emissions have been reduced by the application of sector-specific EU Directives, dealing with large combustion plants and waste incineration. Some EU Member States have introduced further emission controls, for instance on cremation.

EU legislation also prohibits or severely restricts the use of mercury in the following applications: batteries; electrical and electronic equipment; pesticides and biocides; cosmetics; wood preservatives; textile treatment agents; anti-fouling agents for boat hulls; and switches in vehicles. Some Member States have introduced further controls, for example to prohibit the sale of fever thermometers containing mercury or to restrict the use of mercury in dental amalgam.

Other areas of EU legislation set requirements for the management of waste that contains mercury, and for the protection or monitoring of the quality of the environment in respect of mercury (air, water, groundwater). EU legislation also limits the mercury content of drinking water and fishery products.

6) What is the global situation regarding mercury?

Beyond the EU, there are elevated levels of mercury exposure in other parts of the world. Whereas European mercury emissions are going down, global emissions are continuing to rise, for example due to increased coal combustion from growing demand for electricity in developing countries.

Global use of mercury also remains quite high, at about 3,600 tonnes per year, though somewhat reduced compared to former decades. A particularly problematic activity at the moment involves use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, mostly in Africa, Asia and South America. This use consumes around 1,000 tonnes of mercury per year, much of which is lost to the environment.

In addition to national actions to address these issues, mercury is a global and transboundary pollutant, and therefore a matter of international concern. For example, some of the highest human exposures are seen in indigenous Arctic communities, due to the accumulation of mercury in animals that make up part of their traditional diets.

Discussions are ongoing under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on what to do about the global mercury problem. A specific mercury programme was established within UNEP in 2003 to encourage all countries to adopt goals and take actions, as appropriate, in order to identify at-risk populations, minimise exposures through outreach efforts, and reduce human-generated mercury releases. Further action will be considered at the UNEP Governing Council in February 2005.

7) What does the Commission's new mercury strategy propose?

The strategy proposes action in the following areas:

  • Global action: The EU will provide input to international activities and cooperation with other countries to address the mercury problem. The strategy proposes an international initiative to reduce mercury supply, including by phasing out globally the production of new mercury from cinnebar and measures to prevent mercury surpluses going back onto the market. The strategy also contains actions to help other countries reduce their use and emissions of mercury, and to support the UNEP mercury programme.
  • Reducing EU supply: As a proactive contribution to the proposed international initiative described above, the export of mercury from the EU will be phased out by 2011. This will end the EU’s present role as the world’s largest mercury supplier. The action will therefore reduce global supply, complement demand reduction efforts, and demonstrate the EU’s commitment to addressing the global mercury problem.
  • Reducing EU demand: The strategy will prohibit the marketing of measuring devices containing mercury (e.g. thermometers) for consumer use and health care, with certain exceptions. The strategy will also further investigate the few remaining uses of mercury in the EU (e.g. dental amalgam).
  • Addressing EU surpluses: The phasing out of mercury use by the chlor-alkali industry will create a large surplus of this substance. At the moment this mercury is being returned to the world market (see question 4), but this will end with the phasing out of exports from the EU. The strategy will therefore ensure that the mercury is safely stored. The question of what to do about mercury already circulating in society (e.g. in old products still in use) will also be studied further.
  • Reducing EU emissions: As described in question 5, there is already considerable EU legislation in this area, which should cut emissions further. The effects of the current EU laws will be reviewed as they are implemented, in order to indicate whether further action is needed. Information will also be exchanged among Member States to support greater control of emissions. A specific study of possibilities for additional control of releases from small-scale coal burning is about to be launched.
  • Protecting against EU exposure: The European Food Safety Authority will look in more detail at the dietary mercury exposure of women of child-bearing age and children, who are most vulnerable to the effects of mercury (see question 3). The Commission will provide additional advice on mercury in food as new conclusions are reached.
  • Improving understanding: Research will be undertaken to fill key gaps in knowledge on the mercury problem and its possible solutions.

8) Will the implementation of the mercury strategy cost money and harm competitiveness?

In developing the mercury strategy the Commission has prepared an Extended Impact Assessment (ExIA). This looks at five main subjects:

  • mercury supply and trade;
  • the fate of surplus mercury from the chlor-alkali industry;
  • use of mercury in measuring and control equipment;
  • additional control of mercury emissions from large combustion plants; and
  • control of mercury emissions from cremation.

In each area, two or more policy options were compared, and the preferred option selected for inclusion in the strategy reflecting the optimal balance of the social, economic and environmental impacts concerned.

As regards mercury supply and trade, the expected direct economic cost of the proposed export ban is low.

This is because the price of mercury has fallen dramatically since its peak in the 1960s, standing relatively stable at around €5 per kilogramme for most of the past decade (apart from a temporary recent rise to €10 per kilogramme), and the traded volumes (around 1,000 tonnes per year, see question 4) are fairly small.

However, the export ban will lead to some cost in terms of requiring storage of the surplus mercury from the chlor-alkali industry. As an order of magnitude, this is expected to be around €1.5 million per year. But this cost is considered to be justified because the significant contribution that ending exports will make to addressing the global mercury problem. The cost of storage has also been assessed to be of a scale that should not affect the competitiveness of the European chlor-alkali industry. In contrast, the option of pre-treatment to form a mercury compound for permanent disposal – which was also examined in the ExIA – was found to be much more expensive and potentially able to affect the competitiveness of this industry.

On measuring and control equipment for consumer use and healthcare, the economic impacts of the proposed action are expected to be small. Substitutes are available at about the same price for most items of equipment concerned, and in fact the substitution process is already fairly advanced.

In relation to control of emissions from coal burning and cremation, however, it was decided not to take additional action at this stage. This is because these sectors are already subject to control under some EU or national legislation. Therefore, the additional benefit of EU action would be limited compared to the cost.

9) Has the Commission consulted stakeholders and taken their comments into account?

The Commission undertook two consultation exercises in preparing the mercury strategy. Firstly, in September 2003, a meeting was organised for Member States, to collect information on their existing legislation and other initiatives relating to mercury, and to discuss the possible content and objectives of the strategy. Secondly, an open consultation document was published on the internet on 15 March 2004. Stakeholders were invited to comment on a range of issues, and to provide technical, scientific or economic information, in order to inform the development of the mercury strategy. About 50 written consultation responses were received.

As part of the consultation exercise, a stakeholder consultation meeting took place on 31 March 2004. This was attended by nearly 100 representatives from Member States and other countries, trade associations, businesses, environmental NGOs, researchers and international bodies.

A variety of views were put forward during these consultations. The Commission used the information and evidence submitted, as well as its own analyses, to identify the main issues for assessment, and then to evaluate options in terms of their environmental, social and economic impacts.

10) How will the strategy be taken forward now?

The strategy will now be forwarded to the Council, who originally requested it, and to the European Parliament. It will also provide the basis of an EU position for international discussion of mercury in the February 2005 UNEP Governing Council meeting.

The strategy itself does not include any legislative proposals, but rather announces the Commission’s intention to bring such proposals forward (e.g. to phase out mercury exports and restrict marketing of measuring devices containing mercury). The Commission will therefore now proceed to draft these proposals before submitting them to the Council and Parliament for adoption.

The proposed mercury strategy, the extended impact assessment and other information can be found at:

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/mercury/index.htm


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