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Mercury

1. Overview

Mercury is a highly toxic metal that spreads worldwide and causes significant harm to human health. It is a chemical element and therefore indestructible, the only metal that is liquid at ambient temperature. This means that there is a "global pool" of mercury circulating in society and the environment - between air, water, sediments, soil and living organisms.

Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. In the presence of bacteria, mercury can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Human exposure to methylmercury is mainly through the accumulation in the food chain and in particular through the intake of fish. 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. 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. Additional information is provided in the document attached.

As mercury is a global pollutant which can cross international borders and living organisms travel long distances, the mercury problem needs to be addressed both at the EU and the international level.

2. EU mercury strategy

The European Union has made considerable progress in addressing the global challenges of mercury since it launched the EU mercury strategy in 2005.  

The EU mercury strategy includes 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.  This has resulted inter alia in:

  • restrictions on the inclusion of mercury or mercury compounds in a number of products including measuring devices (e.g. thermometers, sphygmomanometers, barometers), as well as batteries, electrical and electronic equipment etc.
  • a ban on exports of mercury from the EU that came into force in 2011,
  • new rules on the safe storage of mercury.

On 7 December 2012 the Commission adopted a Communication on the review of the Community Strategy concerning Mercury.

3. Restrictions on products containing mercury

In implementing the EU mercury strategy, a number of restrictions on the use of mercury in products have been imposed, including:

  • In batteries and accumulators by Directive 2008/12/EC in conjunction with Directive 2006/66/EC, see also the Commission webpage on batteries.
  • In electrical and electronic equipment, as required by the RoHS Directive (Directive 2002/95/EC), see also the Commission webpage on RoHS.
  • Measuring devices containing mercury for use by the general public have been restricted from the market by Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), as amended by Commission Regulation (EC) No 552/2009.
  • A further amendment by Commission Regulation (EU) No 847/2012 on 19/9/2012 restricts the use of mercury in several measuring devices (e.g. thermometers, sphygmomanometers, barometers) for industrial and professional uses from 10 April 2014.
  • Commission Regulation (EU) No. 848/2012 published on the same date prohibits the manufacture, use and placement on the market of five phenylmercury compounds from 10 October 2017.

4. EU mercury export ban

One of the key measures in implementing the Mercury Strategy was the adoption of Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 on the banning of mercury exports and the safe storage of metallic mercury. For details see:

Member State authorities and companies concerned shall report to the Commission the information foreseen in Articles 5 and 6 of this Regulation preferably electronically by using the following email address ENV-MERCURY@ec.europa.eu, or by post to: European Commission, DG.ENV.C.3/Mercury Export Ban, B-1049 Bruxelles, BELGIUM.

Quantities of metallic mercury reported according to Article 6 of the Regulation

  • Dec 2009 (xls ~ 37KB)
  • May 2010 (xls ~ 33KB) - Reporting as of 31/12/2009
  • May 2011 (xls ~ 35KB) - Reporting as of 31/12/2010
  • May 2012 (xls ~ 50 KB) - Reporting as of 31/12/2011
  • May 2013 (xls ~ 23 KB) - Reporting as of 31/12/2012

5. Global issue & International agreement

Mercury is recognised as a chemical of global concern due to its long-range transport in the atmosphere, its persistence in the environment, its ability to bioaccumulate in ecosystems and its significant negative effect on human health and the environment.

For many years the EU has been advocating strong international action to address the mercury problem.

As a first step for addressing the mercury issue at global level, a mercury programme was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 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.

In February 2009 the UNEP Governing Council took a decisive step and launched negotiations on a global legally binding instrument on mercury with the goal to conclude them prior to the twenty-seventh regular session of the Governing Council in 2013.

The negotiation process was concluded in Geneva on 20 January 2013. The new Mercury Convention opened for signature at a Diplomatic Conference held in Japan, 7-11 October 2013 is named "Minamata Convention" after the Japanese town where the worst ever case of mercury pollution happened in the years 1950. For details see the UNEPs website.

Press release on the conclusion of the international negotiation process

6. Future steps

Ratification and implementation of the Minamata Convention by the EU

The Commission is undertaking an overall assessment of changes to existing EU policy and legislation that might be necessary to achieve full compliance with the new Minamata Convention. The Commission is assisted by a consultant in performing this task.  In the context of this exercise, a stakeholder consultation meeting will be organised in Brussels on 7 July 2014. The preliminary findings of the consultant's report will be presented on this occasion. Comments and remarks from Member States and the interested public will be taken into account when deciding on a possible new legislative proposal early in 2015. More information is provided in the following documents:

  • Invitation
  • Agenda
  • Registration Form
  • Draft report
    Draft final report as prepared by the contractor. The document is transmitted as prepared, it has been neither been reviewed nor endorsed by the Commission yet. Information contained therein is subject to change and it should therefore not be quoted, cited or circulated outside of the context of the ongoing review process.

Dental amalgam

Dental amalgam was identified as the second biggest intentional use of mercury in the EU.

Following a consultation by the European Commission, the Committee for Environmental and Health Risks (SCHER) and the Committee for Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) issued opinions in 2008 that did not provide sufficient justification for further action by the Commission.

However, in the "Review of the Community Strategy Concerning Mercury" in 2010, the Commission identified the need to further investigate the issue:

  • A study conducted by Bio Intelligence Service S.A. in 2012, concluded that the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact would be a ban of the use of mercury in dentistry in combination with better enforcement of EU waste legislation.
  • The Commission requested the Scientific Committee for Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), as well as the Scientific Committee for Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) to update their opinions on the basis of the new information made available. A public consultation on both opinions is foreseen in 2013, more information is available at the webpages of the Scientific Committees.

Further information and studies

Study on the "Cost effectiveness of options for a global legally binding instrument on mercury" prepared for DG ENV by COWI A/S (May 2012) (pdf~1,7Mb)

Study on the "Review of the Community Strategy Concerning Mercury" prepared for DG ENV by Bio Intelligence Service S.A.S (October 2010) (pdf~3,37Mb)

A study on "Requirements for facilities and acceptance criteria for the disposal of metallic mercury" prepared for DG ENV by BiPRO GmbH (April 2010).

September 2008 report: "Options for reducing mercury use in products and applications and the fate of mercury already circulating in society" addressing Action 10 of the Mercury Strategy (executive summary pdf~ 243KB or full report pdf~5MB)

Independent expert group paper on Ambient air pollution by mercury, produced in relation to EU air quality legislation

A background report on Mercury flows and safe storage of surplus mercury (pdf~1,2Mb) prepared for DG Environment by Concorde East/West Sprl (August 2006).

A study on the "Costs and environmental effectiveness of options for reducing mercury emissions to air from small-scale combustion installations" prepared for DG ENV by AEA Technology / NILU-Polska (December 2005).

A background report on Mercury flows in Europe and the world: The impact of decommissioned chlor-alkali plants (pdf~980K), prepared for DG Environment by Concorde East/West Sprl (February 2004).