EU and US rule toxic metal must be stored underground

The European Union has banned exports of mercury from 2011, in order to cut emissions of the toxic metal into the environment. Meanwhile, the US is expected to pass legislation that would see its mercury exports banned from 2013.

Under EU legislation adopted on September 25, from March 2011 mercury waste from industrial processes - such as the manufacture of chlorine and the production of vinyl chloride, the monomer of PVC - will be stored in steel containers in underground salt mines. 

Although the EU stopped mercury mining in 2001, it is the world’s biggest exporter, responsible for up to a quarter of the world’s mercury supply, according to the European Commission. The EU chlor-alkali industry is currently phasing out its use of mercury electrodes to manufacture chlorine and caustic soda, and expects membrane technology to have replaced them by 2020. Euro Chlor, a business association representing EU chlor-alkali producers, estimates that around 9,000 tonnes of liquid mercury still remains in European chlorine plants.

Mercury is highly toxic, especially to the developing nervous system, and concentrates in food chains once released into the environment. The United Nations has warned that the metal is increasingly finding its way into the hands of small-scale gold miners in the developing world, who use it as quicksilver to help extract precious specks of gold from sand. Exports of cinnabar ore - which can be crushed to extract mercury - are also banned in the EU legislation.

The export ban is one of the initiatives proposed under the EU mercury strategy approved in 2006. ’Let us hope that other countries will follow our example and support our goal of cutting the global supply of this dangerous substance,’ said EU Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas.

The US, another of the world’s biggest exporters of mercury, is also poised to pass export legislation. On September 29 the House of Representatives approved a bill, passed in Senate three days earlier, that would ban elemental mercury exports from 2013. It awaits President Bush’s approval. The House had earlier pushed for an export ban from 2010, in a November 2007 bill that was not examined by Senate. 

Richard Van Noorden

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