November 14, 2006

EU Parliament Backs Plans to Ban Mercury

STRASBOURG, France (AP) - The European Parliament on Tuesday backed plans to phase out the use of mercury in non-electrical measuring devices, with the exception of barometers and antique instruments.

Medical devices such as thermometers and manometers would be covered by the legislation, which now goes to EU member states for assessment.

The draft directive follows a call by the EU executive Commission to ban exports of mercury from 2011 as part of efforts to cut down the global supply of the highly toxic chemical.

The 25-member EU is the world's biggest exporter of mercury, which is gradually being phased out by industry "” even by its main European user, the chlor-alkali sector which supplies chlorine to a wide range of manufacturers.

The EU said it would also continue to push for a worldwide agreement to reduce human and environmental exposure to mercury at a U.N. Environment Program meeting in February 2007.

Mercury poisoning can be fatal and even small amounts can damage the nervous system. Elevated mercury levels have been linked to learning disabilities and developmental delays in children and to heart, nervous system and kidney damage in adults.

Traces of mercury are found in nearly all fish and shellfish. Released through industrial pollution, mercury falls and accumulates in streams and oceans as a more toxic form, methylmercury. This can pass through the blood barrier and into the placenta, posing a particular risk to pregnant women and children.

Global demand for mercury is around 3,400 metric tons (3,750 U.S. tons) a year. The 15 nations that have been part of the EU the longest accounted for 440 metric tons (485 U.S. tons) of that last year.

The EU Parliament exempted barometers from the new law because it says they typically use only recycled mercury and their producers usually function as knowledge centers for the safe handling of the metal.