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:
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:
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
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.
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 will be assisted by a consultant in performing this task. The Mercury Export Ban Regulation (see above under 4) contains a review clause for 2013 that is combined with the Minamata ratification and implementation assessment.
In the context of this exercise, a stakeholder consultation is tentatively scheduled for spring 2014. The preliminary findings of the consultant's study 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 later in 2014.
Information regarding meetings and consultation documents will be made available on this webpage.
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:
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 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).