Documents considered by the Committee on 12 January 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

10 EU strategy for mercury



COM(10) 723

Commission Communication on the review of the Community Strategy concerning mercury

Legal base
Document originated7 December 2010
Deposited in Parliament15 December 2010
DepartmentEnvironment, Food & Rural Affairs
Basis of considerationEM of 22 December 2010
Previous Committee ReportNone, but see footnote
To be discussed in CouncilNo date set
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared


10.1 Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, especially to the developing nervous system, as well as to wildlife populations. It can exist in three forms — elemental, inorganic and organic — and one of the last of these (methylmercury) gives rise to the greatest concern. As mercury is persistent, it can accumulate in organisms along food chains and be transported long distances, via the atmosphere and oceans, and, although the majority of emissions to air are elemental mercury, with the remainder in the inorganic form, these can be transformed following deposition into methylmercury, especially in aquatic environments.

10.2 Although mercury is released naturally, its use by humans has led to significant increases in environmental exposure: and, even though many applications have been discontinued, it still has several uses, such as in measuring instruments and dental amalgam. Also, conversion of the chlor-alkali industry in the EU to mercury-free technology is expected to result in 12-15,000 tonnes of surplus mercury in coming years. Against this background, the Commission put forward in January 2005 a Community Strategy,[55] which addresses most aspects of the mercury life cycle and aims to reduce levels in relation to human and environmental exposure. In particular, it identifies twenty priority actions at EU and wider international levels, under seven headings — reducing emissions, reducing supply, reducing demand, addressing surpluses and reservoirs, protecting against exposure, improving understanding, and supporting international action.

The current document

10.3 In putting forward this strategy, the Commission also said that it would carry out a review by the end of 2010, and it has now sought to do so in this Communication. In general, it says that there has been significant progress in implementation of the Strategy, with delivery on almost all the actions identified, and that there are currently no proposals for legislation or additional action, because it is awaiting the adoption of a global legally binding instrument on mercury under the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which is expected to be agreed in 2013.

10.4 In the meantime, the Commission summarises the key action taken under the various headings in the strategy:

  Reducing Emissions

The Commission observes that implementation of the new Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU) is expected to accelerate the replacement of mercury-based technologies and reduce emissions in a range of industrial sectors, including cement production, non-ferrous metal industries, large combustion plants, waste incineration and chlor-alkali manufacturing. It says that it will review by the end of 2012 whether there is a need to lower thresholds in the Directive for applying the rules for large combustion plants, in order to encompass small-scale installations.

  Reducing Supply

The Commission notes that, in order to reduce the amount of mercury reaching the global market, Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 will prohibit the export of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures/alloys from the EU as from 15 March 2011.

  Reducing Demand

The Commission says that reports on the use of dental amalgam have not been conclusive as regards the need for additional regulatory measures to restrict its use, and that it will therefore undertake a full lifecycle assessment, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. In the meantime, it notes that Directive 2007/51/EC prohibits the placing on the market of mercury in fever thermometers and other mercury-containing measuring devices[56] intended for sale to the general public (though the restrictions do not apply to devices already in use or sold second hand, or to those in the latter category which were more than 50 years old on 3 October 2007). It also says that a public consultation is currently being held on a report by European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), proposing the extension of these restrictions to other measuring devices in healthcare and professional and industrial uses, and that the opinions of the relevant Committees under the Chemicals Regulation (REACH) are expected to be submitted in September 2011, following which it will decide whether to introduce legislation to give effect to these proposals within the EU.

  Addressing Surpluses and Reservoirs

The Commission points out that Regulation 1102/2008/EC restricts the export of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures, classifies certain metallic mercury as waste and requires the storage of this waste in ways which are safe for human health and the environment. It adds that specific criteria for the safe, temporary storage of waste metallic mercury are presently under development, and are expected to be adopted by the Commission in early 2011 within the context of Council Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste.

  Protecting Against Exposure

The Commission says that it issued an Information Note to Member States in April 2008, providing advice on the maximum quantities of certain fish to be consumed by vulnerable groups (pregnant and breast-feeding women and young children).

  Improving Understanding

The Commission comments that a number of research projects addressing mercury have been funded by the EU, and that the Global Mercury Observation System, involving 24 partner countries, was established in November 2010 to provide key information on the global atmospheric transport of mercury in order to evaluate the effectiveness of mercury emissions reduction strategies. Also, it launched in 2009 a study on "Scientific support in relation to the EU Mercury Policy", to analyse existing research results of policy relevance, the results of which are expected in 2011.

  Supporting International Action

The Commission says that it and Member States have engaged in a number of international fora, raising awareness and seeking solutions to mercury issues. As well as negotiations on a global legally binding instrument, these have included the UNEP Global Mercury Programme, especially aimed at reducing mercury emissions from coal combustion, and the UN Economic Convention for Europe Convention on Long Range Trans-boundary Air Pollution, where the EU has proposed the addition of a number of mercury-containing products to the Protocol.

The Government's view

10.5 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 22 December 2010, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Lord Henley) says that mercury has been recognised as a priority pollutant for many years, and that a number of national, European and international efforts have been initiated to reduce emissions to the environment. He adds that the use of mercury has been greatly reduced in the UK in recent decades and emissions to air, water and soils, as well as its export from the EU and applications in batteries, paint and seed dressings, fever thermometers and other measuring devices intended for sale to the general public, are regulated under a range of European Directives.

10.6 The Minister says that in general the UK continues to be supportive of the approach adopted by the Community Strategy, and is content with the progress made. It fully agrees with the Commission's intention to await adoption of a global legally binding instrument on mercury before evaluating the need for further review of the Strategy, and it also continues to support strongly the need for the Commission to work closely with Member States, industry and non-governmental organisations on all aspects of the Strategy, particularly with regard to the continuing work on whether to extend marketing restrictions on mercury in measuring and control equipment, and the issue of dental amalgam.


10.7 Since this document is simply a report on the implementation of the Community strategy for mercury, and contains no new proposals, we are content to clear it. However, we believe that the particular environmental and health problems presented by mercury are sufficiently important to justify our drawing its contents to the attention of the House. In particular, we note that the Commission considers good progress has been made under the various headings in the strategy, and that it will take further stock of the position when a globally binding instrument has been agreed under the UN Environment Programme.

55   (26348) 5999/05: see HC 38-xi (2004-05), chapter 7 (15 March 2005). Back

56   Such as barometers, non-fever thermometers, sphygmomanometers. Back

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