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Mercury is a highly toxic metal that is liquid at room temperature and is commonly known as quicksilver due to its appearance. Pure mercury is rarely found in nature, mercury is extracted mainly from cinnabar ore, which has a brick-red colour.
Mercury and its compounds are highly toxic to humans, ecosystems and wildlife. High doses can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses can seriously affect the nervous system and have been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems.
Mercury is considered as a global persistent pollutant, circulating between air, water, sediments, soil and biota in various forms. It can change in the environment into methylmercury, which is its most toxic form. Methylmercury biomagnifies especially in the aquatic food chain, making the human population and wildlife with a high intake of fish and seafood particularly vulnerable.
Mercury is used in a number of industrial processes (e.g. chlor-alkali, plastics industry, etc.) and in products (thermometers, dental amalgam, batteries, light bulbs, etc). It is also released unintentionally through the burning of fossil fuels (particularly in coal-fired power plants). About half of the mercury currently released into the atmosphere comes from human activity.
As mercury is a global pollutant which can cross international borders the mercury problem needs to be addressed both at the EU and the international level.
The EU Mercury Strategy includes a comprehensive plan to address mercury pollution both in the EU and globally. It contains 20 measures to reduce mercury emissions, cut supply and demand and protect against exposure, especially to methylmercury found in fish. A number of measures have also been introduced to restrict the mercury content in products such as batteries, electrical and electronic equipment, and measuring devices such as thermometers, sphygmomanometers and barometers for industrial and professional use. The EU also introduced a ban on mercury exports and the safe storage of metallic mercury.
Internationally, a new convention to address mercury was negotiated between February 2009 and January 2013. The new Mercury Convention is named the Minamata Convention on Mercury after the Japanese town where the worst ever case of mercury pollution happened in the 1950s.
The European Commission and all the Member States are now preparing to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury. As part of this, the Commission is undertaking an overall assessment of changes to existing EU policy and legislation that might be necessary to achieve full compliance with the new Minamata Convention. Consultants to the Commission have prepared an extensive report on the implementation of the Convention.
Anyone can participate in the current consultation underway by the European Commission, which is open until 14th November 2014, and will greatly assist with efforts to ratify the Convention.
Check out the European Commission’s mercury webpage
Participate in the European Commission’s consultation to support ratification of the Minamata Convention
Read the Study on EU Implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury
Find out more about the Minamata Convention on Mercury
Download the EU Mercury Export Ban Regulation
Download the Irish Mercury Export Ban Regulations
Download a copy of the Minamata Convention on Mercury
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