European Commission Proposes Ban on EU Mercury Exports

BRUSSELS, Belgium, October 30, 2006 (ENS) - The European Commission has proposed legislation to ban all European Union exports of mercury from 2011. The ban forms a key part of the EU's strategy for reducing global exposure to mercury, which is toxic to humans and the environment.

The export ban is expected to reduce global supply and emissions of the heavy metal into the environment.

The proposed regulation would ban mercury exports from the EU from July 1, 2011. From the same date, mercury no longer used in the chlor-alkali industry as well as mercury gained from the purification of natural gas or production of non-ferrous metals would have to be safely stored, possibly in underground salt mines adapted for waste disposal.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, "This proposal underlines the Commission's determination to protect people and the environment from exposure to this highly toxic metal. In banning exports of mercury and requiring its safe storage, the EU will be setting an example for global action to reduce emissions. I urge other countries to support moves towards a worldwide agreement."


European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas of Greece (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
A main global supplier of mercury is the Spanish state owned firm MAYASA, which supplies around 1,000 metric tonnes per year.

MAYASA re-sells mercury that it buys from the EU chlor-alkali industry as mercury cells are phased out. It is estimated that between now and 2020 some 12,000 metric tonnes of mercury will become available due to this phaseout.

The Commission has consulted widely on its proposal and MAYASA, the Spanish government and the European chlor-alkali industry the stakeholders most directly affected have agreed to the ban from the date proposed.

The Commission has taken note that CEFIC, the European chemical industry organization, has given a voluntary commitment to ensure safe storage of mercury from the chlor-alkali industry from July 1, 2011.

The proposed regulation now goes to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for approval under the co-decision procedure.

Mercury use is declining both in the EU and globally. Global demand is around 3,400 tonnes per year, with the EU-15 accounting for 440 metric tonnes in 2005.

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 polyvinyl chloride, PVC, plastic.

In the EU only the chlor-alkali industry remains a significant user, and it is progressively phasing out the use of mercury in its production of chlorine.

Chlorine and caustic soda are the main products made from the chlor-alkali electrolysis technology. Mercury is used as a negative electrode or cathode that works with a titanium anode to keep the highly reactive products involved apart when electricity is passed through brine.

The next most significant use of mercury in the EU is in dental amalgam.


Chlorine producers in Western Europe have agreed not to build any new mercury processing plants. Many, like this Hoechst plant in Frankfurt, Germany, are looking at economically viable alternatives to comply with a total phaseout of the mercury process. (Photo courtesy Chemicals Technology)
Environmental and health NGOs welcomed the European Commission's proposal for a regulation to ban EU mercury exports and ensure the safe storage of surplus mercury, so that it will not re-enter the global market.

"The European Commission has taken a leadership role in the world through its hands-on approach to reducing mercury in the environment, by controlling mercury supply", said Elena Lymberidi, the EEB's Zero Mercury Campaign Project Coordinator.

The NGOs believe that this sends a clear message both to world governments attending the European Commission International conference today and tomorrow, and to participants at the forthcoming UNEP Governing Council meeting in February 2007.

"We are happy that the EU has decided to control mercury flows which go to developing countries." said Rickford Vieira, gold mining pollution abatement coordinator, WWF Guianas. "Other developed countries should now take similar measures which will help to better protect goldminers and their families, in developing countries as well as global food supplies."

"The Commission recognized that it is very important that mercury supply and demand are addressed simultaneously," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project and co-founder of the Zero Mercury Working Group. "This should also happen globally. Mercury is a deadly pollutant which should stop being traded internationally."

The EU mercury strategy, launched by the Commission in January 2005, is a comprehensive plan addressing mercury pollution both in the EU and globally. It contains 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 supplies are major aspects of the strategy.

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 affect the nervous system and have been linked with 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 may be formed in water and soil by bacteria acting on metallic mercury and inorganic mercury compounds that enter the air and water from mining ore deposits, burning coal and waste, and from manufacturing plants.

Methylmercury builds up in the tissues of fish, and people are exposed by eating fish or shellfish contaminated with methylmercury. Larger and older fish tend to have the highest levels of mercury.


Baked fish for dinner. The rule of thumb is that any fish that can fit whole into a pan can be safely eaten. (Photo credit unknown)
People can be exposed by breathing vapors from spills, incinerators, and industries that burn mercury-containing fuels. They can be exposed when mercury is released into the body from dental work and medical treatments.

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.

Exposure to high levels of metallic, inorganic, or organic mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and developing fetus.

The NGOs are not satisfied with the proposed legislation because mercury compounds and mercury-containing products, which are to be subject to use and marketing restrictions in the EU, are not included in the scope of the ban.

They say the proposed implementation date of July 2011 is too far distant. NGOs have been seeking a 2008 export ban, and the European Parliament resolution of March 2006 sought implementation by 2010.

In addition, NGOs are concerned that the Commission is allowing the potential for permanent storage of mercury, before an environmentally sound method guaranteeing such an approach, is developed and understood.

"A transfer of polluting technologies and products to the developing countries will not prevent the entry of mercury into the ocean and the fish we eat in Europe," said Karolina Ruzickova of Health Care Without Harm Europe.

The Commission organized an international mercury conference on Thursday and Friday Brussels to promote global action, including the possible development of a legally binding international agreement, to reduce human and environmental exposure.

The international conference on mercury organized by the Commission on October 26 and 27 in Brussels focused on reducing supply and demand. The conference comes just four months before the next meeting of the UNEP Governing Council in February 2007, where the issue of a binding global instrument will again be discussed.

The conference aimed to increase international awareness of mercury issues and to facilitate contacts between producing/exporting countries and consuming nations. Delegates from more than 30 non-EU countries including China, Russia, India, Brazil, the United States and Canada took part.

Reducing mercury exposure worldwide requires action at international level to complement the EU's own measures. The EU has already raised the need for a legally binding global instrument on mercury at the Governing Council of the UN Environment Program, UNEP.

The UNEP Governing Council concluded, at its 22nd session in February 2003, that there is sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts from mercury to warrant further international action.