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BRUSSELS, 29 March 2003 --/World-Wire/-- A coalition of environmental NGOs is calling on the European Commission to phase out mercury production and its use, stop the toxic trade in surplus mercury particularly from the chlor-alkali industry, and to store it until a permanent solution is found. NGOs including Greenpeace and the European Environmental Bureau are attending two key meetings in Brussels at the European Parliament on 29-31 March, sponsored by the EC and the Nordic Council of Ministers, to grapple with the global mercury crisis identified by the United Nations last year, and to develop an EU-wide strategy to reduce global pollution and human exposure to mercury.

'Mercury is a very potent neurotoxin with devastating consequences for the global environment. Given that alternatives exist for virtually all key uses, it's time that we stopped trading it on the global market like potato chips,' said Hana Kuncova of Czech environmental group Sdruzeni Arnika.

The meetings are taking place just days after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advised pregnant women and children to eat less swordfish, tuna and certain other fish, due to high levels of mercury contamination.

'The EFSA advice reflects the scale of impacts on human health and the environment which have resulted from the ongoing production, trade and use of mercury in products and processes, despite alternatives being available for virtually all uses,' said Dr Kevin Brigden, a Greenpeace scientist. 'Unless the current situation is addressed both within Europe and globally, these impacts will continue.'

In the EU, mercury is used mainly in chlorine production, dental amalgam and other products. Within the EU the use of mercury is restricted in many products and applications including batteries, and in the manufacture of cars and electric appliances. Many EU chlorine manufacturers are still using old technology which should be phased out by 2007, according to EU legislation, and by 2010 under the 1990 OSPAR 1 convention. But, right now, almost 100% of chlor-alkali manufacturers in the EU still use mercury. Japan banned mercury use in the chlor-alkali process 40 years ago after the serious contamination accident at Minamata. The US has also restricted the use of mercury in the chlor-alkali industry, promoting permanent storage of this toxic substance. Many groups are calling for a total phase-out of all uses of mercury, substituting with available mercury-free alternatives.

Even if a mercury ban were implemented, the EU still has a serious problem with what to do with accumulating waste mercury. Background reports for the meetings today prove that most of the global demand for mercury is from the developing world and involves products or technologies that would be considered illegal or antiquated by EU standards. The EU is dumping its mercury problem on others, and creating a circle of poison in the process. Several hundred tonnes of mercury has flooded the marketplace. In addition, the Spanish mine Almaden produces virgin mercury and, in a confidential agreement, buys mercury from EU chor-alkali plants for resale to global markets

'In India, exposure to mercury is a serious problem and with assistance we could substantially reduce many current uses,' said Ravi Agarwal of Toxics Link India. 'The EU should take the responsibility for helping India and others to reduce demand, instead of allowing the projected 15,000 tonnes of mercury being sent to developing countries, where it contaminates our people, local communities and the global food supply.'

Industry wants to trade the waste mercury, but many want it to be stored indefinitely. Permanent storage options are being investigated, with Sweden having already made considerable investment, though additional research and capacity building is required within Europe

'There is an immediate need for the total phase-out of mercury mining and trading through a sustainable European strategy. This must include the promotion of a legally binding global instrument with the ultimate goal of zero use and emissions,' said Roberto Ferrigno, policy director of the European Environmental Bureau. 'The EU plays a substantial part in supplying the global demand for mercury. It is therefore appropriate that Europe take the lead in reducing its toxic trade, which is contributing to global pollution and coming back to harm us in the food we eat.'

Notes for editors

  1. The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic ('OSPAR Convention') entered into force on 25 March 1998. The Convention has been signed and ratified by all of the Contracting Parties to the Oslo or Paris Conventions (Belgium, Denmark, the Commission of the European Communities, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and by Luxembourg and Switzerland.

NGOs attending: Jim Puckett (Basel Action Network), Roberto Ferrigno (EEB), Kevin Brigden (Greenpeace), Michael Bender (Mercury Policy), Linda Greer & David Lennett (National Resources Defense Council, Hava Kuncova (Sdruzeni Arnika, Czech Republic), Ravi Agarwal (Toxics Link, India)

For further information and interviews, contact:

Katharine Mill, Greenpeace: + 32 2 274 1903, + 32 496 156229 Roberto Ferrigno, EEB, tel +32 (0)2 289 1094, e-mail, Jim Puckett +1 206-779-0363.

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