No More Silver Linings: What we need from the EU Mercury Regulation

As the current EU mandate draws to a close, decision-makers have a small window of time to deliver on ambitious phase-out dates for controversial mercury-added products and address the most important remaining uses of mercury within the EU. Time is now ticking: all three EU institutions must work quickly to secure the completion of the file before the next EU elections in June 2024 to protect the environment and public health from this dangerous neurotoxin.  

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a clear example of diffuse chemical pollution that has seeped into our atmosphere, soil and surface water. High doses of this heavy metal can be fatal, and even lower doses can have dramatic long-term consequences for our ecosystems, wildlife and human health.

Under the European Green Deal and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, the EU pledged to ensure a ‘toxic-free environment’ to protect citizens and the environment against hazardous chemicals and encourage the development of safe alternatives. The revision of the EU Mercury Regulation, designed to curb mercury emissions and use within the EU, is central to these aims.

Despite being a global leader in mercury and chemicals regulation, mercury levels in the EU still currently often exceed levels permitted by lawsone third of EU babies have mercury levels above the “recommended safe limit, which can cause lifelong developmental damage.   

Bare your teeth 

The largest remaining EU mercury use is dental amalgam – mercury makes up 50% of its composition. The Commission proposal to phase it out by 2025 would avoid 10 tonnes of mercury (re)entering the EU environment by 2030. Despite the claim that a 2025 deadline is too short and would bring difficulties to countries to implement, non-mercury alternatives are already more widely used by dentists in the EU than their mercury-added counterparts and do not require additional labour costs. Moreover, mercury-free alternatives are already the preferred option by most EU citizens, and currently make up 81-90% of uses. The laws banning dental amalgam in children’s teeth provide a precedent for quick and effective implementation for the phase-out.   

Although it may not seem obvious, cremation of dead people with dental amalgam is one of the ways in which mercury emissions can enter the atmosphere. Even if dental amalgam were banned, mercury would still be “walking around people’s mouths” and later be released should they be cremated. The regulation should also limit emissions coming from these facilities or, at a minimum, provide guidance, request monitoring and reporting of emissions and plans for their eventual reduction.  

Spotlight on lamps

Another typical use for mercury is in fluorescent lamps. Thankfully, these have already been banned in the EU market, but the EU must also prohibit their manufacture and exports outside the EU at the latest by 2025. This would indeed match the trending global shift towards mercury-free, more energy and cost-efficient LED lamps, whose growth in revenues exceeds the decline in fluorescents. Banning exports of mercury-added products not allowed in the EU would also put an end to double standards and ensure that mercury-added products are not reaching countries that lack safe collection and recycling systems.

Furthermore, the economic impact from such an early ban is estimated to be small or non-existent. The very few remaining EU companies that still produce fluorescent lamps have already started shifting their production lines to LEDs and local assembly of LEDs products can create more jobs. Re-location of EU businesses is also unlikely. Mercury use is decreasing and equivalent measures in other countries are being developed and implemented. In fact, international markets such as India and China are following the lead of EU legislation. Finally, an early ban would allow for important savings in CO2 emissions, contributing to the climate change fight.  

Global strength

The EU regulation should also be further strengthened in key areas, sending a clear signal to countries working towards similar objectives and opening up future discussions at global level.  

Recent reports, studies and investigations revealed and informed on the trade of mercury compounds for use in mercury added skin lightening creams – a use banned at EU level. To that end the manufacture and trade of mercury-added compounds should be regulated and eventually prohibited, especially for non-allowed uses.  

Remaining uses such as mercury in porosimetry, in lighthouses, and vaccines should also be further investigated and addressed. In addition, non-electric and electronic mercury added products which reach their end of life should be collected and managed separately and safely. 

No more silver linings

The EU bears a responsibility to lead by example in tackling mercury pollution. Phasing out mercury is a gradual process, but there is already a lot the EU can do to protect its citizens from this type of pollution. The European Parliament, Council and Commission must reach an agreement on the EU Mercury Regulation revision before the upcoming Spring elections of 2024. Better EU-wide restrictions on mercury would further set an example for Asia and Africa, already making strides towards decreasing their mercury use and emissions.