Exposure to small quantities of mercury can cause serious health problems affecting the nervous, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. This can also harm a child's brain development, both before and after birth. While mercury pollution is largely airborne, vast amounts end up in seas and oceans. Most people are therefore exposed to mercury mainly through their diet, in particular by consuming contaminated seafood.
The European Union is on track to becoming mercury-free thanks to its long-standing policy to cut pollution from this indestructible and highly toxic substance. However, EU action alone is not sufficient and global mercury pollution has to be cut to further protect EU citizens from contamination. Up to 80 % of the mercury deposited in the EU is from non-EU countries.
The EU requires the use of best available techniques to reduce emissions from all relevant industrial activities, especially coal combustion, waste incineration, cement production and the manufacture and smelting of metals. Mercury emissions to the air dropped by around 73 % between 1990 and 2014 and to water by 71 % between 2007 and 2014.
The EU banned mercury-containing batteries, thermometers, barometers and blood pressure monitors. Mercury is also no longer allowed in most switches and relays found in electronic equipment. Energy-efficient lamps using mercury technology are only permitted on the market with a reduced mercury content. Since July 2018, the biggest remaining application for mercury in the EU, dental amalgam, is prohibited from use on vulnerable patients. Dental clinics have to install high-performance filters, which will significantly reduce mercury releases to water. Further actions are envisaged to reduce and ultimately end the use of dental amalgam.
The EU has been at the forefront of mobilising the international community to reduce mercury pollution. This included prohibiting mining and export of mercury from the EU to discourage its use in artisanal and small scale gold mining that affects the lives of some 15 million people in developing countries, including up to 4.5 million children and women. International action resulted in 2013 in the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally binding international agreement aimed at tackling mercury pollution, which makes many EU rules global.
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