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Procedure : 2005/2050(INI)
Document stages in plenary
Document selected : A6-0044/2006

Texts tabled :

A6-0044/2006

Debates :

PV 13/03/2006 - 21
CRE 13/03/2006 - 21

Votes :

PV 14/03/2006 - 11.3
Explanations of votes

Texts adopted :

P6_TA(2006)0078

Debates
Monday, 13 March 2006 - Strasbourg OJ edition

21. Community strategy concerning mercury (debate)
PV
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  President. The next item is the report by Marios Matsakis, on behalf of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, on the Community strategy concerning mercury (2005/2050(INI)) (A6-0044/2006).

 
  
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  Marios Matsakis (ALDE), rapporteur. – Mr President, firstly, I wish to thank all the shadow rapporteurs for the very constructive cooperation afforded to me in the preparation of this report. I also thank all those who submitted amendments and are contributing to the debate on the subject-matter of this strategy document.

Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans and wildlife. After mercury changes in the environment to methylmercury, the most toxic form, it readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can cause severe neuronal damage. It also speedily crosses the placental barrier and can therefore affect foetal neural development. Mercury poses a global threat as it travels long distances through the atmosphere, crossing national boundaries and contaminating European and global food supplies at levels posing a significant risk to human health.

As the EU is the largest mercury exporter in the world, EU leadership in dealing with global mercury hazards is, therefore, clearly an economic, political and moral imperative. EU action, as well as international commitment, is necessary for the protection of human health and the environment. The Community strategy concerning mercury, with its integral approach is, therefore, an important contribution in tackling this global threat.

In broad terms, the report welcomes the Commission communication and emphasises the overall approach taken, with the objective being to reduce and eventually phase out emission and supply of and demand for mercury at European level, as well as to manage the surpluses of mercury and to protect against exposure.

In particular, the strategy deals with matters such as: implementing an effective export ban and safe storage; introducing emission limit values for mercury from combustion plants, and other related activities; banning mercury in measuring and control equipment where possible; collecting and treating mercury waste; ensuring the provision of sufficient information and the monitoring of vulnerable population groups; and supporting and promoting international concerted action for dealing with the mercury threat.

Of note is the recommendation to achieve a ban, where an appropriate and safer alternative exists, in the use of mercury in the manufacture of vaccines. Also of note is the exemption from the strategy of instruments of historical importance.

With regard to the 13 final amendments before you, I would support Amendments Nos 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12. Of special significance, I feel, is Amendment No. 10, which essentially reintroduces my original Article 17 on dental amalgams. On that issue I wish to say the following.

Article 17 basically asks the Commission to put forward proposals by the end of 2007 to restrict – not to ban immediately – the use of mercury in dental amalgams. The reason is that it is quite unacceptable, in my view, to continue inserting such a potentially toxic substance in people's mouths when safer alternatives exist. In fact, many dentists – my own included – have long since stopped using mercury-containing amalgams, as the more modern alternatives – the white-coloured amalgams – are safer, more aesthetic and cost the same. So, I urge you to vote positively on Amendment No. 10.

Once again, I thank all those who have contributed to the work on this report.

(Applause)

 
  
  

IN THE CHAIR: MR VIDAL-QUADRAS ROCA
Vice-President

 
  
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  Stavros Dimas, Μember of the Commission. (EL) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, I should like to start by expressing my appreciation for the very good job done in the report we are debating today. In particular, I should like to thank Mr Matsakis for his exceptionally constructive and substantial contribution to it.

I should like to comment briefly on the basic purpose and the objectives of the strategy concerning mercury. The basic purpose of the strategy is to reduce mercury levels in the environment and man's exposure to mercury, especially methylmercury contained in fish. Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to man, ecosystems and wild birds. High doses can prove to be fatal to man and, even in relatively limited doses, may have serious repercussions on human health.

The strategy has the following six objectives: to reduce mercury emissions, to reduce the available quantities of mercury by cutting the relative supply and demand, to resolve the long-term problem of limiting surpluses and stocks of mercury in products which are still in use or have been stored in recent years, to protect against mercury exposure, to improve understanding of the problems caused by mercury and its unavoidable uses and to support and promote international action to address the question of mercury.

Over recent decades, numerous actions have been taken at Community level to address the problem of mercury and reduce emissions and uses of and exposure to it. At the same time, this and everything we have done to date is not enough. A great deal more needs to be done. At the strategy preparation stage, the Commission paid particular attention to identifying the most important aspects of the mercury problem which continue to exist and the sectors in which it would be possible for further action to be taken on the part of the European Union.

The main sectors examined and for which action is proposed in the short term are as follows: the supply of mercury to the market and mercury exports, mercury surpluses from the chlor-alkali industry, the use of mercury in measuring and control equipment and mercury emissions from coal burning. We should not forget that it will take decades to completely wipe out the problem of mercury. Today's levels are due to past mercury emissions and it will take time for these levels to stabilise, even if there are no new mercury emissions.

I should also like to emphasise the importance which joint international action has, of course, with the initiatives being taken at European Union level. Mercury is a global pollutant and the Commission intends to organise an international conference in Brussels on 26 and 27 October of this year in order to strengthen the momentum which exists on the international field as regards addressing this issue.

To close, I would like to thank Mr Matsakis and Parliament as a whole once again for their work and to repeat my promise to help shape even stricter European Union policies for better protection of health and the environment.

 
  
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  Martin Callanan, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. – Mr President, I should like to thank Mr Matsakis for all the work he has done on this report. The outcome of the votes in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety is a report that is the first step towards a coherent approach being taken towards mercury and the ultimate reduction of mercury levels in the environment. That is a tribute to the work that Mr Matsakis has done.

The PPE-DE Group has tabled two amendments to the report that was adopted in committee. One of those amendments – that concerning traditional measuring instrumentation, such as barometers – would allow the extremely small number of people in the EU who repair, maintain and recycle barometers to continue to operate under very strictly controlled conditions. A ban would see the end of the tradition of barometer-making and craftsmanship, which began over 400 years ago when mercury barometers were first introduced. If those businesses are forced to close, people will be unable to have their instruments properly repaired and they will potentially dispose of them straight into household waste, which would be in nobody's interests.

I am, however, completely in favour of legislation to protect the public from the highly toxic substance that mercury is, but the approach that we should take on environmental issues must be proportionate and it must be balanced.

A complete ban, in my view, would be a disproportionate response. Barometers are made by only a small group of people in Europe and those operators, who have an extremely good and safe working understanding of mercury and all the hazards it represents, are best placed to help reduce that pollution. Appropriate product safety warnings and the licensing of suitable establishments would enable the usage of mercury to be controlled and monitored and people could continue to use their barometers, as they have for centuries, without a threat to the environment or to health.

The second amendment concerns mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants. I believe my colleagues will speak about those later on.

 
  
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  María Sornosa Martínez, on behalf of the PSE Group. (ES) Mr President, we share your objectives, Mr Matsakis: both the elimination of mercury emissions at European level and the ban on exports of mercury which, like its compounds, is highly toxic for human beings and the environment, as other speakers have pointed out.

Although the European Union is the world’s main mercury exporter and a ban on its export will make a considerable contribution to curbing the trade and reducing world surpluses of this metal, I would appeal to the Council to ensure that the European Union continues to participate in international fora and activities, makes bilateral commitments and implements projects with third countries, particularly in the field of the transfer of technology, in order to deal with the problem of mercury pollution. In this context, binding legal measures should be adopted at international level.

I would also call upon the Commission to increase awareness amongst the population, organising information campaigns on the health risks of exposure to mercury and the environmental problems caused by it, since I fear that citizens are not yet sufficiently aware of its toxicity.

Another issue that worries me in particular is the use of mercury in the form of thiomersal in vaccines, since it could be harmful to human health, and we should therefore bear in mind that countries such as Denmark have not been using it in vaccines for children since 1992.

I am delighted that the Council’s conclusions recognise the environmental and social problems resulting from the closure of the mercury mines that have been operating for a long time in Almadén, as well as the possibility of using these Almadén mines for the safe storage of the existing metallic mercury stocks or metallic mercury sub-produced by industry all over Europe, but never its waste, thus making use of the infrastructures, local manpower and technological expertise existing there.

It only remains for me to thank the rapporteur and all of the shadow rapporteurs, because their work has been truly excellent.

 
  
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  Carl Schlyter, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. (SV) I wish to thank Mr Matsakis for his exemplary work as rapporteur.

As long ago as 1990, when the PARCOM Agreement was concluded, it was agreed that the chlor-alkali industry should phase out mercury by 2010. Now, we must bring about an export ban that enters into force before this. Otherwise, the chlor-alkali industry, which has the largest stocks of mercury in Europe, will export huge quantities of it. It is important to have an export ban before 2010.

We talk about safety where deposits are concerned, but the second most extensive use of mercury today is ten centimetres from our brains. I was given my first amalgam-free filling 21 years ago, and it is still there. It is of fantastically high quality. A mere 0.05% of Swedish children’s and young people’s fillings now contain amalgam, while the corresponding figure for adults is two percent. Moreover, the figures are falling all the time. The Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate has shown that it is mainly for reasons connected with the environment and public health that we must do away with mercury, for which there are sound alternatives. You can see how three quarters of mercury discharges stem from amalgam, with the majority of them originating in dental clinics. This means that amalgam fillings account for by far the largest portion of discharges of mercury into our sewers. I therefore call on you to vote in favour of my Amendment 10 in order to get rid of these problems. Thank you again, Mr Matsakis, for your constructive work.

 
  
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  Adamos Adamou, on behalf of the GUE/NGL Group. (EL) Mr President, first of all I wish to express our congratulations and thanks to Mr Matsakis for his report; he made a serious effort to incorporate the views of all the honourable Members in the motion for a resolution.

Despite the positive elements of the document, we are of the view that the Community strategy concerning mercury could and should have been strengthened further. We are of the view that a ban on mercury exports from European Union countries should be brought into force by no later than 2008 and not 2010, as supported by the majority in committee.

At the same time, we would stress the importance of establishing a stricter regime on exemptions from the aforementioned ban. To be specific, exemptions should only be allowed if there is no suitable alternative solution.

Finally, we support the fact that the EU should also help developing countries to wipe out mercury by offering not only technical but also financial assistance.

 
  
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  Kathy Sinnott, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. – Mr President, I should like to begin by congratulating the Commission on deciding to eliminate mercury. That decision is long overdue. We have known that mercury is dangerous for a long time. I want to congratulate Mr Matsakis on an excellent report that goes further than the Commission, especially in identifying for the Commission one of the most dangerous uses of mercury today: thermerasol – mercury directly injected in commonly-used medications such as flu vaccines. Since removing mercury from paediatric vaccines in California, cases of autism are continuing to increase. However, for the first time in over 20 years the rate of increase has significantly slowed down. Commissioner, please ensure that, if there is an avian flu jab, it will be mercury-free.

There is one more source of mercury that I would ask you to eliminate. The Irish Government pollutes the Irish water supply with hexafluorosilic acid, a waste product of the artificial fertiliser industry which, in addition to mercury, contains other toxins such as lead, arsenic, beryllium, vanadium, cadmium, radionuclides and silicone. Please tackle that.

 
  
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  Thomas Ulmer (PPE-DE).(DE) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to start with warm thanks to Mr Matsakis for his good, constructive and frank cooperation on this report, which is by way of preparation for legislation, so that we are pointing the way forward whilst not yet taking any final decisions. The legislative measures must follow later.

It has by now become a matter of common knowledge that mercury is highly toxic, and that is of course reason enough why it needs to be taken out of circulation. So, then, by aiming for an export ban from 2010 onwards and for the secure storage of mercury that has been taken out of circulation, we are sending the first vital indications of the direction in which we need to go. It is already evident that the principle of substitution applies here, and that is made all the more important by the fact that mercury is not bio-degradable and so it is permanently in circulation; every single microgram of it will keep on coming back to human beings through the food chain. People living by the sea who frequently eat fish already have in their tissues concentrations of mercury in excess of the permissible threshold values. Unfortunate though it is that nothing can at present be done to change that, and that no direct consequences result from it, it does, in terms of environmental medicine, indicate the need for an absolute ban.

As things currently stand, I am also less than satisfied with the wording relating to dental amalgam, which remains strongly suspected of playing a part in a range of conditions, of which I shall cite as examples immune deficiencies, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and damage to the unborn child in the womb. Even if the experts have not yet arrived at their final judgment on this, I see the tendency and the risk as being beyond doubt, so what is needed above all else is prevention and care before we think about experimenting on live subjects. I will not be recommending amalgam and mercury products to the people and patients entrusted to my care and will do my utmost to ensure that mercury is taken out of circulation – as far as possible and as soon as possible.

 
  
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  Gyula Hegyi (PSE) . – Mr President, generally speaking, I agree with Mr Matsakis and his excellent report. All of my amendments were accepted by the committee. I should like to briefly underline their content.

Public information is crucial in this case. Everybody should understand the health and environmental risks of mercury. As pollution does not stop at borders, we must also urge our neighbouring countries to implement our strict mercury policy. The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument is a primary tool to encourage those countries to take the right action in the field of the environment. The same goes for the labelling of gold that has been mined without using mercury, both inside and outside the European Union.

Last but not least, I call upon the European Union to be cautious about dental amalgam. The real risk should be avoided, but we have to allow more time for research and consideration of the scientific facts. I believe that at this moment in time a total ban would be too radical a step.

 
  
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  María del Pilar Ayuso González (PPE-DE). – (ES) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, I would like firstly to congratulate Mr Matsakis and the shadow rapporteurs on their excellent work.

Mercury is a toxic element which has a negative impact on health, and the Commission is therefore proposing its safe storage and, at the same time, a reduction in its use and an end to the trade in it, but, as point 9 of the Communication states quite rightly, there are many gaps in our knowledge of its effects on human health, of how it is disseminated and accumulated in the environment, of its toxicity and of the sensitivity of ecosystems.

I believe that it is important and should be a priority that all of these issues be investigated and that decisions be taken on a scientific basis and not on the basis of mere suppositions, which are sometimes alarmist and which have been exaggerated by the media.

Furthermore, Commissioner, the only region in Europe that produces mercury, although its mines are already closed, is Almadén. This region was very prosperous, thanks to the mercury that it has extracted from its mines since Roman times, but it is now depressed, also as a result of mercury. It must therefore be compensated by means of specific support, measures and infrastructures which can partially alleviate the effects of the measures taken. It is there that, amongst other things, the safe storage of the liquid mercury that is going to be withdrawn from the market must take place.

The chloroalkaline industry has signed an agreement to put an end to the use of mercury completely by 2020. This agreement must be respected and compliance with it monitored.

Out of interest, I simply wished to say that I have lived in the region of Almadén, that I have held mercury in my hands on many occasions, that I have had mercury dental amalgams, which I no longer have for aesthetic reasons, and I can assure you that I have not had any health problems, and nor have the people who live there, nor the animals nor the plants, because, as the toxicologists say quite rightly, the poison is in the dose.

 
  
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  Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez (PSE).(ES) Mr President, Commissioner, I would like to congratulate Dr Matsakis on his report and on the draft resolution that he presented to our Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and I would like to thank the Members in that Committee for their contributions, which have improved the text that we are currently debating.

For more than 22 years I was a Member of Parliament in Spain for the province of Ciudad Real, in which Almadén and its mines are located and where the majority of the mercury extracted in Europe and the world has been produced for twenty centuries.

This region, which has experienced a thorough process of diversification, will be affected once again by the prohibitions laid down in the Community mercury strategy on the production and export of that metal.

The drawing up of Dr Matsakis’s report has been followed with interest in and around Almadén, and the text of the resolution that we will approve tomorrow responds to the expectations of my countrymen by recommending that they receive significant European Union compensation to ensure the social and economic revitalisation of those territories.

They have also been sympathetic to the idea that has been mentioned here several times that the metallic mercury store envisaged in the Community strategy should be in Almadén, since it is there that the experience, technology and workforce necessary for managing that store with the proper guarantees can be found.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite you, Commissioner, to come with Dr Matsakis and myself to Almadén and to witness the great beauty of its countryside, as well as the warmth of its people and their European enthusiasm for moving forward.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your understanding and solidarity.

 
  
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  Stavros Dimas, Μember of the Commission. (EL) Mr President, of course your invitation is welcome. First of all, allow me to thank all of you for your very constructive comments. The contribution of the European Parliament is very important and it is only in close cooperation with the institutions that we shall be able to secure for the European Union effective ways of addressing the negative repercussions of mercury on human health and the environment. That is why I welcome the support which you expressed in your report and interventions on the strategy.

I note with particular satisfaction that Parliament shares our views on the main actions of the strategy concerning mercury. That is a very strong foundation for the adoption of specific new measures to apply the strategy. These measures are already at the preparation stage.

I should like, so as not to take up too much time, to say a couple of words about the points raised by Mr Callanan. The environmental repercussions from mercury are still important and there are suitable alternative solutions. Similarly, suitable adaptation is not a problem for small producers, which is why the Commission too has proposed a ban on the use of mercury in these measuring devices. As regards the question of dental amalgams, the Commission will ask the relevant medical working party to study new measures and will call for the opinion of the scientific committee on the danger to health and the environment.

To finish, I should like once again to thank Parliament and Mr Matsakis in particular for his particularly positive stand on the strategy. The Commission wishes to continue this exceptional cooperation with Parliament on this particularly serious issue.

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place tomorrow at 11.30 a.m.

 
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