Brussels -- What is mercury?
Mercury is familiar to many as a silver-coloured liquid which expands and contracts in a thermometer to show the temperature. It is also known as “quicksilver” or 'hydrargyrum' (i.e. 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.
Where does mercury come from?
Mercury occurs in deposits throughout the world in the form of a mineral called cinnabar (mercury sulphide). Cinnabar is used to produce liquid mercury, which is used in industrial processes and products. Mercury can be released into the environment from natural causes like volcanoes and forest fires, or as a result of human activities such as coal-burning, cement and caustic soda production, and the disposal of products containing mercury.
Why is mercury a problem?
Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans and the environment. Large amounts can be fatal, and 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 can inhibit children’s mental development even before birth. Methylmercury accumulates in fish and seafood, above all in large predatory fish, which may form part of people's diet. Although most Europeans 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.
Where and to what extent is mercury still produced and used in the EU?
The EU was traditionally a major exporter of mercury, providing about 25% of the total global supply of around 3,000 tonnes per year. Most of Europe's mercury was produced in Almadén, Spain, where major deposits of cinnabar had been used since Roman times. Production stopped in 2003 however, and mercury exports have been significantly reduced since then. The export of mercury and certain mercury compounds from the European Union has been banned since 15 March 2011. Outside the EU, the main countries that still produce mercury from cinnabar are Kyrgyzstan and China.
Mercury can also be produced by recycling waste materials such as dental amalgam and old fluorescent light tubes. Sometimes mercury is generated as a secondary product alongside the production of another material, such as zinc or tin. While secondary production activities still take place in a number of EU countries, mercury produced from such operations is characterised as waste under EU legislation, and has to be disposed of.
Mercury is still used in a variety of applications. In 2007, demand for mercury in the then 27 Member States was estimated at more than 320 tonnes. 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.
Apart from these intentional uses, there are also unintentional emissions of mercury into the air from a number of activities using mercury containing fuels or raw materials, the most important of which are coal burning (for heating, cooking, power and steam generation and in industrial process plants), cement clinker production, non-ferrous metals production and waste incineration.
What has existing EU and national legislation tackling mercury achieved so far?
The various aspects of the mercury problem are addressed through comprehensive body of existing EU and national legislation. The main areas covered are emissions and the use of mercury. As a result of these measures and certain other factors (switching from coal burning to other fuels and renewable energy for example), European emissions of mercury to air have been cut considerably in recent decades, falling by about 60% between 1990 and 2000.
Emissions of mercury from major industrial sources were already subject to the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, requiring all installations to be permitted and to apply the best available techniques (BAT) by October 2007. Reference documents (BREFs) adopted by the Commission define the BAT for the different sectors. This Directive has now been replaced by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). Both Directives also cover the EU’s chlor-alkali industry, which is phasing out the use of mercury in its production process. The publication by the Commission in early 2014 of the revised BAT conclusions for this sector will clearly specify that the mercury process is no longer a best available technique. The permits of the installations concerned will have to be revised accordingly within four years of publication of the BAT conclusions. All mercury generated by the conversion of technology or the closure of the plants and that is not any more useful for the sector must be disposed of as waste. Revised BAT conclusions for other relevant industrial sectors have either been adopted (e.g. cement production), are being drafted (e.g. large combustion plants, non-ferrous metals production) or will be prepared in the next years (e.g. waste incineration).
Mercury emissions have also been reduced as a result of the application of sector-specific EU directives dealing with large combustion plants and waste incineration, both of which are now integrated into the IED. Some EU Member States have introduced further emission controls, for instance on cremation.
EU legislation also prohibits or restricts the use of mercury in batteries, electrical and electronic equipment, pesticides and biocides, cosmetics, wood preservatives, textile treatment agents, anti-fouling agents for boat hulls, switches in vehicles, and non-electronic measuring devices for household and medical use. Some Member States have introduced further controls, restricting the use of mercury in dental amalgam, for instance.
EU legislation also sets requirements for managing waste that contains mercury, and to protect and monitor mercury in air, water, and groundwater. Limits are also set 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, core legislation was adopted banning mercury exports from the European Union from 15 March 2011 onwards and requiring the safe storage of metallic mercury from major sources (Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008).
What is the global situation regarding mercury?
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.
In other parts of the world, there are elevated levels of mercury exposure. Whereas European mercury emissions are going down, global emissions continue to rise, largely as a result of increased coal combustion for electricity in countries such as China, India and many developing countries. Global use of mercury also remains 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 more than 1,000 tonnes of mercury per year, much of which is lost to the environment.
Within the framework of the UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), a Protocol on heavy metals was adopted in 2003, and revised in 2012. It aims at limiting air emissions of mercury, lead and cadmium from Europe and North America.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established a specific mercury programme in 2003 to encourage all countries to adopt goals, identify vulnerable populations, minimise exposure through outreach efforts, and reduce human-generated mercury releases.
In 2009, the UNEP Governing Council started negotiating a global legally binding instrument on mercury. The negotiation process ended successfully in January 2013 and the EU signed the new Minamata Convention on Mercury in the town of Kumamoto, Japan, on 10 October 2013.
The Convention covers the whole mercury life-cycle, from primary mining to waste disposal, and contains specific legally binding control measures, not just declarations of intent. Many of the provisions are directly inspired by EU legislation, including the ban on primary mining, the list of mercury-added products and mercury-using industrial processes that will be phased-out, as well as the use of best available techniques (BAT) to prevent and control unintentional industrial emissions of mercury into the air.
The sum of the measures contained in the Mercury Convention will be able to reverse the current increasing trend of mercury contamination in the environment and the food chain. The phase-out of primary mercury mining as well as the reduction of atmospheric mercury emissions will significantly reduce the addition of mercury to the quantity of mercury already present in the environment, and particularly in the food chain.
What does the EU 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 the global phasing out of the production of new mercury from cinnabar and measures to prevent mercury surpluses going back onto the market. The strategy also includes actions to help other countries reduce their use and emissions of mercury, and to support the UNEP mercury programme. The Minamata Convention is the result of this action.
- Reducing EU supply: As a proactive contribution to the proposed international initiative described above, the Strategy proposed the phase-out of exports of mercury from the EU by 2011. The action therefore reduces global supply, complements demand reduction efforts, and demonstrates the EU’s commitment to addressing the global mercury problem. The adoption of Regulation No 1102/2008 responded to this proposal.
- Reducing EU demand: In implementing the strategy, the marketing of measuring devices containing mercury (e.g. thermometers) for consumer use and health care – with certain exceptions – has been prohibited. The few remaining uses of mercury in the EU (e.g. dental amalgam) will be further investigated and appropriate action taken, if needed.
- Addressing EU surpluses: The phasing out of mercury use by the chlor-alkali industry will create a large surplus of this substance. In the past this mercury was returned to the world market but this ended with the phasing out of exports from the EU in 2011 under the above mentioned Regulation which also ensures that the mercury is safely stored. The question of what to do about mercury already in circulation (in old products still in use) has also been considered. The results of a comprehensive study on remaining uses of mercury within the EU are published on the Commission's website:
- Reducing EU mercury emissions: As explained earlier, 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 to see if further action is needed. Information will also be exchanged between Member States to support greater control of emissions. A specific study of possibilities for additional control of releases from small-scale coal-burning is already available.
- Protecting against exposure to mercury in the EU: The European Food Safety Authority has looked into the dietary mercury exposure of women of child-bearing age and children who are most vulnerable to the effects of mercury. The Commission issued an Information Note to Member States in 2008 on methylmercury in fish and fishery products, with advice on the maximum quantities of certain fish to be consumed by vulnerable groups.
- Improving understanding: Research will be undertaken to fill key gaps in knowledge on the mercury problem.
The strategy provided the basis of an EU position for international discussion of mercury in the context of UNEP. It was revised by the Commission in December 2010 (Communication COM(2010)723). The revision highlighted the priority given to the international negotiation process, on-going at that time, and noted the need to further assess the issue of dental amalgam
What will happen to the strategy now?
In 2013/14 the Commission will assess in detail the implications of the Minamata Convention – which the EU intends to ratify as soon as possible – for EU policy and legislation. This will also include stakeholder consultation. Any possible decision to amend the Mercury Strategy and/or existing EU legislation will be based on the outcome of this process.