New call for global mercury ban

Posted: 18 January 2007

More than one in six women involved in a small-scale study in 21 countries has a level of mercury above a widely-accepted recommended safety dose, according to a report by the "Stay Healthy, Stop Mercury" campaign.

Although the survey involved only around 250 women, the results reaffirm figures published in the EU's 2005 extended impact assessment. The findings are worrying because scientific reports have shown conclusively that low-level exposure to mercury in the womb can cause brain damage in children.

Speaking at the launch of the report in Brussels, Dutch paediatrician Gavin ten Tusscher said that exposure to mercury at current environmental levels is now a recognised danger for the next generation. "Mercury has long been recognised as a major source of toxicity in children causing reduced cognitive functioning, including reduced I.Q. However, we are now seeing that even 'low' exposure levels can cause damage to the developing brain of the foetus and infant. These are mercury levels that are not known to cause acute poisoning or ill health in adults," he says.

The "Stay Healthy, Stop Mercury" campaign aims to raise awareness of a potential "child brain drain" taking place in Europe and around the world as a result of environmental mercury pollution. The two groups coordinating the campaign - the Health & Environment Alliance and Health Care Without Harm - are calling on the EU to show leadership in efforts to control environmental mercury pollution by securing a global ban on mercury. Ultimately, the only solution is to eliminate all uses of mercury everywhere, to collect and store remaining mercury safely and to clean up mercury pollution.

The European Union has already implemented a number of measures restricting the use of mercury in certain everyday products. Karolina Ruzickova, Health Care Without Harm Europe, believes the European institutions should now go further on the elimination of mercury in products, especially in medical devices. "We would like to see the European institutions adopt a ban on mercury in measuring devices including those used in healthcare such as blood pressure devices, granting exceptions only if there is evidence that no safe and accurate alternatives are available for clinical use," she says.

Fish dangers

Harmful human exposure to mercury is mainly through the consumption of certain types of fish. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has put out guidelines on fish consumption for certain vulnerable groups but they are weak and not widely known.

Génon Jensen, Health & Environment Network, will emphasise the need to inform women on how to protect themselves and their children in addition to the global ban. "Even if we stopped all mercury production and spills and emissions today, our global food supply would still be contaminated for years to come. Women need to have information now and we hope that this snapshot survey and campaign help to provide just that," she says.

The campaign does not want pregnant women and other people to stop eating fish and seafood because both are important sources of nutrients. "We are simply saying that it's better to eat smaller fish that are lower in the food chain and therefore less contaminated with mercury," Ms Jensen concludes.

The campaign also aims to ensure that the findings of biomonitoring of mercury, planned by the EU to start this year, will be rapidly conveyed to inform public education campaigns on the best exposure reduction measures.

Both organisers hope that the campaign transmits to leaders and industry worldwide, the silent, but increasing health damage of mercury to our children, and the urgency of acting today. The Health & Environment Alliance and Health Care Without Harm will advocate for a strong commitment to reduce mercury pollution as part of the Zero Mercury Campaign at the United Nations Development Programme meeting in Nairobi next month.

The report, "Halting the child brain drain: Why we need to tackle global mercury contamination" is available online at www.env-health.org

The European Commission's Extended Impact Assessment is available on the EU Mercury Strategy page of DG Environment website here. (See page 12 for figures on mercury exposure in European communities).

The Governing Council meeting of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)will take place in Nairobi on 5-9 February 2007. See Zero Mercury website at www.zeromercury.org.