March 13, 2006
Tough measures to reduce the use of mercury in Europe are to be debated in the European parliament.
A resolution from Cypriot MEP Marios Matsakis calls for a ban on EU mercury exports by 2010 and steps to extract and collect mercury from all waste.
Mercury collects and concentrates in the aquatic food chain
The resolution describes mercury as a "global threat", particularly harmful to babies as they develop in the womb.
Experts say many fishing communities in the Mediterranean and Arctic have already absorbed unsafe levels.
Mr Matsakis wants the EU to take more radical steps than those envisaged in a strategy on mercury issued by the European Commission last year.
His resolution provides the parliament with an opportunity to debate the strategy, although the vote, later this week, will not be binding.
The parliament will, at a later date, hold a binding vote on a specific proposal issued by the Commission last month to ban the use of mercury in new thermometers, barometers and blood pressure gauges.
The current parliamentary resolution calls for:
*A ban on exports from the EU "as soon as possible and by 2010 at the latest" and a system to track imports and exports by 2008
*Compulsory separate collection and treatment schemes for all mercury-containing products
*Legislation to cut down emissions of mercury from crematoria and coal-fired power stations
*Local air quality limits and national emissions limits
*An investigation into the health impact of ethyl mercury in vaccines "with a view to restriction of such use and a total ban"
*Measures to ensure safe storage of mercury no longer needed by the chemicals industry, with minimum standards and penalties for infringement
*Encouragement to the other main mining countries, Algeria and Kyrgyzstan, to phase out exports
*Promotion of gold mining techniques that do not use mercury.
Europe is currently the largest exporter of metallic mercury, selling about 1,000 tonnes per year, compared with an overall global supply of 3,600 tonnes per year.
About 12,000 tonnes of mercury is estimated to be disposed of by the chemicals industry in the next 15 years, as production techniques in which it has traditionally been used become obsolete.
The main source of mercury release into the environment is coal-burning, while the largest source of mercury exposure for most people in developed countries is inhalation of mercury vapour from dental fillings.
Barometers have been made in Britain for over 400 years and banning them outright would be disproportionate
Conservative MEP Martin Callanan
Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have already taken steps to control emissions from crematoria as dental amalgam is vapourised. For example, the UK is demanding the fitting of filters to halve emissions by 2012.
However, people are most likely to absorb the most lethal form of mercury, methylmercury, from eating fish and seafood.
In 2003, the UK Food Standards Agency advised pregnant mothers to limit consumption of tuna to two cans a week and research is now under way to test claims that children who eat too much tuna develop learning difficulties.
British Conservative MEP Martin Callanan says the EU's ongoing mercury crackdown will needlessly hit the barometer-making industry.
"Barometers have been made in Britain for over 400 years and banning them outright would be disproportionate to the level of risk from their mercury", he said.