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Press Release

For immediate release, February 8th ,2016

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New Commission proposal puts EU on path from hero to zero to address global mercury crisis

Brussels, 8 February 2016 – The European Commission has quietly launched its new mercury package on 2nd February 2016 [1], moving the EU a step closer towards ratifying the Minamata Convention, a UN treaty to stamp out mercury [2]. While the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) welcomes the new package, its content fails to meet even the lowest of expectations.

We are deeply disappointed with this bare-bones proposal from the Commission,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Zero Mercury Campaign Project Manager.  “Under the guise of Better Regulation, it is putting the EU on an embarrassing path from hero to zero in addressing the global mercury crisis.  The proposal effectively ignores a public consultation, progressive industry voices, and even the scientific findings of its own impact assessment.”

The package sets out plans to update existing EU law in line with the internationally-agreed goals to limit mercury supply, use and emissions under the treaty. Despite the EU having played a leading role in the formation of the Convention, the new plan to put it into practice appears to have fallen victim to the EU’s Better Regulation agenda. The package was already delayed by over a year – pushing back the UN treaty ratification process [3] – and ambition is thin on the ground.

The new proposals follow the lowest-cost approach across the board rather than promoting higher environmental protection, according to the EEB. Elsewhere, other ‘new’ proposals are simply repackaged existing EU legislation, and some of the treaty requirements seem not to be covered by the proposal at all.

Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, especially to the developing nervous system. Mercury transforms to neurotoxic methylmercury, which has the capacity to collect in organisms (bioaccumulate) and to concentrate up food chains (biomagnify), especially in the aquatic food chain – fish, the basic food source for millions of people.

Recent studies indicate that mercury levels are increasing in tuna by 4% per year, correlating with the continuing rise in mercury in the global environment. If steps are not taken to reduce global mercury pollution, levels of mercury are expected to double by 2050 [4]. 

The EEB will now be calling on the European Parliament and Member States to recognise the gravity of the situation and adopt measures that will reduce and eliminate all unnecessary uses and releases of mercury.

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For more information, please contact:

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Zero Mercury Campaign Project Manager, +32 (2) 289 13 01, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Paul Hallows, Communications Officer, +32 (2) 790 88 17, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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Notes to editors:

[1] Ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury by the EU

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/chemicals/mercury/ratification_en.htm

[2] The Minimata Convention on Mercury http://www.mercuryconvention.org

To meet the Convention requirements, six areas are identified which need additional legislation at the EU level:

  • The import of mercury

  • The export of certain mercury added products

  • The use of mercury in certain manufacturing processes

  • New mercury uses in product and manufacturing processes

  • Mercury use in artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM)

  • Mercury use in dental amalgams

[3] NGOs Letter to the European Commission - The EU and its Member States should rapidly ratify the Minamata Convention on mercury, 14 December 2015

http://www.zeromercury.org/index.php?option=com_phocadownload&;view=file&id=199:the-european-union-eu-and-its-member-states-ms-should-rapidly-ratify-the&Itemid=15

[4] Over the past year, it has become more apparent than ever that the global mercury crisis is affecting the food we eat.  Mercury concentrations in tuna are increasing at a rate of 3.8 percent or more per year, according to a new study that suggests rising atmospheric levels of the toxin are to blame. This correlates with recent studies showing that mercury levels in the global environment are set to double by 2050, if current pollution and deposition rates continue. More information: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150202151217.htm

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Mercury Fact sheet
Mercury sources, uses and emissions(2)
Mercury exposure and effects

Mercury is highly toxic, causing damage to the nervous system at even relatively low levels of exposure. It is particularly harmful to the development of unborn children. It collects in human and animal bodies and can be concentrated through the food chain, especially in certain types of fish. The Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection has recommended that women who are breastfeeding or who are or might become pregnant should limit their consumption of large predatory fish, such as swordfish, shark, marlin, pike and tuna.

It is well known that mercury has no respect for national or regional boundaries, travelling long distances through the atmosphere, and has contaminated both the European and global food supplies at levels posing a significant risk to human health, according to the World Health Organisation, food safety authorities, medical and public health professionals around the world. Even the arctic, which has no sources of mercury pollution, is experiencing dangerous levels of contamination in its marine mammals and other species which are part of the food supply.

The chemistry of mercury and its forms in the environment(1)

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and exists in different forms. In pure form it is known as “elemental” or “metallic” mercury (Hg(0) or Hg0). Mercury is rarely found in nature as the pure, liquid metal, but rather within compounds and inorganic salts. Mercury can be bound to other compounds as monovalent or divalent mercury (also expressed as Hg(I) and Hg(II) or Hg2+, respectively). Many inorganic and organic compounds of mercury can be formed from Hg(II).
Several forms of mercury occur naturally in the environment. The most common natural forms of mercury found in the environment are metallic mercury, mercuric sulphide, mercuric chloride, and methylmercury. Some micro-organisms and natural processes can change the mercury in the environment from one form to another.

Mercury is mined as mercuric sulphide (cinnabar ore). Through history, deposits of cinnabar have been the source ores for commercial mining of metallic mercury. The metallic form is most simply refined from mercuric sulphide ore by heating the ore to temperatures above 540º C. This vaporises the mercury in the ore, and the vapours are then captured and cooled to form the liquid metal mercury.
Elemental mercury is a shiny, silver-white metal that is a liquid at room temperature and is traditionally used in thermometers and some electrical switches. If not enclosed, at room temperature some of the metallic mercury will evaporate and form mercury vapours. Mercury vapours are colourless and odourless. The higher the temperature, the more vapours will be released from liquid metallic mercury. Some people who have breathed mercury vapours report a metallic taste in their mouths. Elemental mercury in the atmosphere can undergo transformation into inorganic mercury forms, providing a significant pathway for deposition of emitted elemental mercury.

Inorganic mercuric compounds include mercuric sulphide (HgS), mercuric oxide (HgO) and mercuric chloride (HgCl2). These mercury compounds are also called mercury salts. Most inorganic mercury compounds are white powders or crystals, except for mercuric sulphide, which is red and turns black after exposure to light. Some mercury salts (such as HgCl2) are sufficiently volatile to exist as an atmospheric gas. However, the water solubility and chemical reactivity of these inorganic (or divalent) mercury gases lead to much more rapid deposition from the atmosphere than for elemental mercury. This results in significantly shorter atmospheric lifetimes for these divalent mercury gases than for the elemental mercury gas.

When mercury combines with carbon, the compounds formed are called "organic" mercury compounds or organomercurials. There is a potentially large number of organic mercury compounds (such as methylmercury, dimethylmercury, phenylmercury, and ethylmercury); however, by far the most common organic mercury compound in the environment is methylmercury. Like the inorganic mercuric compounds, both methylmercury and phenylmercury exist as "salts" (for example, methylmercuric chloride or phenylmercuric acetate). When pure, most forms of methylmercury and phenylmercury are white crystalline solids. Dimethylmercury, however, is a colourless liquid.

The most common organic mercury compound that micro-organisms and natural processes generate from other forms is methylmercury. Methylmercury is of particular concern because it can build up (bioaccumulate and biomagnify) in many edible freshwater and saltwater fish and marine mammals to levels that are many thousands of times greater than levels in the surrounding water.

Being an element, mercury cannot be broken down or degraded into harmless substances. Mercury may change between different states and species in its cycle, but its simplest form is elemental mercury, which itself is harmful to humans and the environment. Once mercury has been liberated from either ores or from fossil fuel and mineral deposits hidden in the earth’s crust and released into the biosphere, it can be highly mobile, cycling between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere. The earth’s surface soils, water bodies and bottom sediments are thought to be the primary biospheric sinks for mercury.