Questions & Answers on the EU Mercury Strategy
European Commission - MEMO/08/808 22/12/2008
Other available languages: none
Brussels, 22 December 2008
1) What is mercury?
Mercury is familiar to many people as the silver-coloured liquid which expands and contracts in a thermometer to show the temperature. It is also called “quicksilver” or "hydrargyrum" (meaning liquid silver) and is represented by the symbol Hg. Mercury is the only metal that is liquid at ambient room temperature. It is a chemical element and therefore indestructible. This means that there is a "global pool" of mercury circulating in society and the environment - between air, water, sediments, soil and living organisms.
2) Where does mercury come from?
Mercury occurs in deposits throughout the world in the form of a mineral called cinnabar (mercury sulphide). Cinnabar is transformed into liquid mercury in order to be used in several industrial processes and products. Releases to the environment can be either natural (e.g. volcanoes, forest fires) or derived from human activities, such as coal-burning, cement and caustic soda production and the disposal of products containing mercury.
3) Why is mercury a problem?
Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans and the environment. Large amounts can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can have serious health effects, affecting the nervous system in particular. 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 be 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 has traditionally been a major exporter of mercury, providing about 25% of the total global supply of around 3,000 tonnes per year. In Europe, mercury was largely produced in Almadén, Spain where major deposits of cinnabar have been a source of mercury since Roman times. However, production stopped in 2003 and mercury exports have thus been significantly reduced since then. Outside the EU, the countries that still produce mercury from cinnabar are Kyrgyzstan 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 still take place in a number of EU countries. Mercury is used in a variety of applications. In the 27 EU Member States, the demand for mercury in 2007 was estimated at more than 320 tonnes. The uses include dental amalgam, measuring and control equipment and energy-efficient lamps. 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 this use is being phased out.
2007 EU mercury consumption estimates (tonnes)
Apart from these intentional uses, there are also unintended releases of mercury into the air from coal combustion.
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 (switching from coal burning to oil for example), 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 the EU Directive (96/61/EC) on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), which had to be implemented in Member States by October 1999. Existing installations had until October 2007 to comply. The IPPC Directive also covers the EU’s chlor-alkali industry, which is phasing out the use of mercury in its production process. Mercury emissions have also 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 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, and groundwater). EU legislation also sets limits for the mercury content in drinking water and fishery products.
Since the adoption of the Community Strategy concerning Mercury in January 2005, EU legislators have adopted a Directive (2007/51/EC) relating to the restrictions on the marketing of certain measuring devices containing mercury (thermometers, barometers). In September 2008, legislation was adopted banning mercury exports from the European Union and requiring the safe storage of metallic mercury when the ban takes effect in March 2011.
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 continue 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 accounts for around 1,000 tonnes of mercury per year, much of which is lost to the environment.
Mercury is a global pollutant which can cross international borders and is therefore a matter of international concern. Some of the highest human exposure is seen in native Arctic communities, due to the accumulation of mercury in fish, which makes up a significant part of traditional diets. Discussions are taking place 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 in 2003 to encourage all countries to adopt goals and take action, as appropriate, in order to identify vulnerable populations, minimise exposure through outreach efforts, and reduce human-generated mercury releases.
The UNEP Governing Council in February 2007 recognised that current efforts to reduce risks from mercury were not sufficient and established an ad-hoc Open Ended Working Group with a mandate to review and assess options for enhanced measures. Following two meetings – in Bangkok in 2007 and in Nairobi in 2008 – this group will report to the 25th session of the Governing Council in February 2009, with a view to deciding further steps.
7) What does the EU's mercury strategy propose?
The strategy proposes action in the following areas:
8) Does 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:
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 the1960s, remaining relatively stable at around €5 per kilogramme for most of the past decade, and the traded volumes are fairly small. However, the export ban will lead to some costs in terms of the requirement for storage of surplus mercury from the chlor-alkali industry. This is expected to be around €1.5 million per year. But this cost is considered to be justified in view of the significant contribution that ending exports will make in addressing address 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. As regards 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 the 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 involved.
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 develop 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. Stakeholders were consulted during the preparation of the two recent pieces of legislation (marketing restrictions for measuring devices, Directive 2007/51/EC, and the export ban Regulation)
10) How will the strategy be taken forward?
The strategy provides the basis of an EU position for international discussion of mercury in the context of UNEP. The strategy is due to be revised by the Commission before the end of 2010.
Further details on the mercury strategy can be found at: