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EU scientific committee looks for mercury alternatives

April saw EU scientists actively seeking advice on possible alternatives to a pollutant that threatens the health of millions, from humans, animals to ecosystems. The EU’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) is currently undergoing research into the possible substitutes to mercury-containing sphygmomanometers.

Under a 2007 directive (Directive 2007/51/EC) the use of mercury in thermometers and other measuring devices intended for public sale was banned. Under this directive, the European Commission must review the availability of mercury-free alternatives to the blood pressure monitoring devices by October of this year.

A document published by the SCENIHR in April reveals their main focus to be whether aneroid or electronic instruments are reliable substitutes. Sphygmomanometers, used extensively within healthcare, are currently exempt from the 2007 directive. (EE 03/10/07

Mercury and most of its compounds are highly toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. In the presence of bacteria, mercury can change into methylmercury, its most toxic form. Methylmercury readily passes through both the placenta and the blood-brain barrier, so exposure of women of child-bearing age and of children, is of greatest concern.

Currently we do not know the extent of over-exposure to mercury in children and adults in Europe, or globally. However, in a recent study by the commission (EU Commission Extended Impact Assessment 2005) it is suggested that as many as 1 in 20 people may be affected by mercury - between 1-5% of the general population in Europe (3 -15 million people) are over the EU defined mercury limit.

As Mercury is a chemical element it is indestructible, this means we have a "global pool" of mercury in the environment - between air, water, sediments, soil and living organisms. Thus, whilst banning mercury use within the EU is of utmost importance, this is very much a global issue. Mercury’s capacity as a global pollutant is of huge international concern.

These recent discussions within the EU follow in the wake of a global conference held earlier this year in Narobi. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Governing Council met in February and saw over 140 Governments agree to launch negotiations on an international mercury treaty. They also agreed that the risk to human health and the environment was such that accelerated action under a voluntary Global Mercury Partnership is needed whilst the treaty is being finalised. This outcome follows years of international debate. In 2003 a mercury programme was established to encourage all countries to adopt goals and take action, in order to identify vulnerable populations, minimise exposure through outreach efforts, and reduce human-generated mercury releases. In 2007, it was recognised that efforts to reduce risks from mercury were not sufficient and an ad-hoc Open Ended Working Group was established to review and assess options for enhanced measures. The talks in February were the culmination of findings from the working group.

HEAL has ongoing involvement in the elimination of mercury through the UNEP process. We have actively participated in European stakeholder meetings and contributed to the European Civil Society Statement for Governing Council. Our Stay Healthy Stop Mercury campaign raises awareness of the immediate health threats of mercury, and proposes alternatives and solutions for reducing exposure.

With positive discussions at both EU and international level, we can hope that Mercury in measuring products will soon be a thing of the past. However, positive as these talks have been, it remains to be seen how these agreements will manifest as policies.

Written on 30 April 2009.



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