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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 18:05 GMT
Euro MPs back mercury crackdown
tuna
Mercury collects and concentrates in the aquatic food chain
Members of the European Parliament have approved tough measures to reduce the use of mercury in Europe.

The resolution calls for a ban on EU mercury exports by 2008 and steps to extract and collect mercury from waste.

It also calls for limits on national mercury emissions from power stations and crematoria, and for steps to limit the use of mercury in dental fillings.

Scientists have voiced fears that mercury harms babies' development in the womb and causes learning problems.

Barometer vote

The parliament's vote is not binding in this case, though the European Commission is sometimes influenced by MEPs' recommendations.

Elected Euro-MPs have told the European Commission that banning the repair and manufacture of barometers is disproportionate to the risks posed by mercury
British Conservative MEP Martin Callanan
MEPs will hold a binding vote at a later date on a proposed ban on the use of mercury in new thermometers, barometers and blood pressure gauges.

An amendment to the current resolution supporting the continued manufacture of barometers using mercury, was passed on Tuesday.

The author of the amendment, British Conservative MEP Martin Callanan, said that banning the repair and manufacture of barometers was disproportionate to the risks posed.

"The Commission must now see sense and provide an exemption," he said.

Largest exporter

The parliament's resolution asks the EU to take more radical steps than those envisaged in a strategy on mercury issued by the European Commission last year.

It calls for:

  • A ban on exports from the EU as soon as possible and at the latest 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"
  • Proposals from the Commission to restrict the use of mercury in dental amalgam
  • 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.

Seafood

It is estimated that the chemicals industry will dispose of about 12,000 tonnes of mercury in the next 15 years, as production techniques dependent on mercury 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.

Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have already taken steps to control emissions from crematoria as dental amalgam is vaporised. 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.




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