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Mercury: ban exports and make storage safer

Europe’s battle against mercury goes on. Parliament’s Environment Committee adopted on Thursday a report calling for a ban on exports and imports of mercury from 1 July 2010 and for stricter rules on storage.

In March 2006 Parliament adopted a resolution (see link below) on the general strategy for mercury proposed by the Commission. In November 2006 MEPs voted at first reading on a specific topic: restrictions to be introduced on measuring instruments containing mercury, such as thermometers and barometers. This topic comes up for its second reading at the Environment Committee, starting on 7 May. The new regulation discussed on 3 May by the Environment Committee is another specific application of the general strategy, this time seeking to ban exports and to lay down rules on the storage of mercury. Parliament’s rapporteur is Dimitrios Papadimoulis (Greece) and his report was adopted by 30 votes to 12, with 1 abstention.

The hazards of mercury
Mercury can come from waste recycling (e.g. fluorescent lamps, batteries), natural gas cleaning or the industrial treatment of non-ferrous metals. It is used above all in the chlor-alkali industry, which has undertaken to convert towards techniques that are less dangerous to health and the environment; the old methods produce large quantities of highly toxic calomel (mercurous chloride). Mercury is highly toxic to humans, especially when transformed into methylmercury. It is also bio-accumulative, meaning that it concentrates in the food chain. Numerous scientific studies blame it for cardiovascular and immune-system ailments. Above all it can affect the brain development of children, even in minimal doses.

12,000 tons to be stored
In reducing its mercury use, Europe is building up a stock of the metal which it is currently disposing of on the world market, mainly sending it to developing countries where safety standards may leave much to be desired. From now on this stock will have to be kept at home, notably the 12,000 tons already saved by the chlor-alkali industry. In its draft legislation, the European Commission sought to ban only exports of metallic mercury. MEPs wish to go much further by also applying this ban to cinnabar ore, calomel and other mercury compounds with a mercury concentration of above 5% by weight.

Ban on exports and imports
Since it has a supply of mercury and an increasingly restrictive policy on the use of mercury use, should the European Union not also halt imports of this substance? MEPs think so: today they voted for imports to be banned and for Member States to meet their own demands for mercury, for example from waste recovery. The Commission had proposed that the export ban should enter into force on 1 July 2011 but MEPs voted for this date to be brought forward by one year to 1 July 2010, for both exports and imports. And from 1 January 2010 products containing mercury that cannot be placed on the market in the EU may no longer be exported either.

Safer storage
In their amendments MEPs voted for tougher safety conditions for storage, both for the environment and for health. They believe any storage should be temporary, pending the final disposal of the mercury towards which all Member States should be working, notably by setting up financing arrangements which would be funded, in proportion to their production, by the chlor-alkali and other industries. The mercury could be stored in former salt mines or special surface facilities. Under the polluter-pays principle, MEPs say the owner of the storage facility must be responsible for safety. They propose looking into the possibility of using a site at Almadén, Spain, as the chief storage depot. This site was until 2003 the biggest mercury mine in Europe and should, according to MEPs, benefit from compensatory measures. The Environment Committee also passed several amendments to ensure that the mercury trade is more closely monitored. Lastly, they call for sanctions on anyone who flouts the regulation. (EP Press)