Mercury is one of the most hazardous environmental toxins and constitutes a threat to both the environment and human health. It is a volatile metal that can be airborne over long distances. Mercury cannot be degraded but accumulates in soil, water and living organisms. It is therefore essential that the use and emission of mercury is reduced.
The spread of mercury
Mercury is considered one of the most hazardous substances to be phased out as part of the work with the Swedish national environmental objectives and the Swedish environmental quality objective a Non-Toxic Environment. Mercury pollution is still a problem at a global level.
Mercury is found in the environment and in food, especially fish, in concentrations high enough to be potentially harmful to both humans and the environment. Regions with no mercury emissions, such as the Arctic, are also adversely affected because mercury is airborne over long distances. Most of the mercury falling on Swedish soil comes from other countries. Therefore, in order to reduce the environmental pollution in Sweden, measures must be taken at all levels – locally, within the EU and globally.
A major source of airborne mercury emissions at global level is the burning of coal. Other sources of emissions include smelters, crematoria, small-scale gold extraction and the burning of waste. The spread of mercury from crematoria and dental clinics will cease in time given the decline in the use of amalgam.
Mercury is also spread directly in soil and water as a result of industrial emissions, leaching from garbage dumps and the spread of sludge from waste water.
In nature, mercury can be converted into the highly toxic form of methylmercury. Methylmercury can damage the central nervous system. During its development the nervous system is at its most vulnerable. Therefore, foetuses and infants in particular need protection. Methylmercury passes through the placenta to the foetus and can affect foetal development. In cases of long-term exposure to low concentrations of mercury, children can show signs of learning difficulties and impaired intellectual capacity.
In cases of high exposure to methylmercury, adults run the risk of cardiovascular disease. These effects are not found, however, in cases of low exposure.
The risks of the effects of inorganic mercury to the foetus are so far insufficiently studied, but there are studies that indicate that inorganic mercury, like methylmercury, causes damage to the central nervous system.
How do we ingest mercury?
We can ingest mercury via food or exposure in certain industrial environments and in the dental healthcare environment. High concentrations in fish are a well-known environmental problem, and the population groups who eat large amounts of fish and shellfish or marine mammals are especially vulnerable.
General ban on mercury in Sweden
Since 2009 Sweden has had a general ban on placing mercury and articles containing mercury on the Swedish market in order to minimise the emissions to the environment.
Mercury means mercury and compounds and mixtures in which mercury has been used or added. Mercury may not be
- placed on the Swedish market
- professionally transferred out of Sweden
- used in Sweden.
Articles containing mercury means articles and equipment where mercury is used or has been added. Articles containing mercury may not be
- placed on the Swedish market
- professionally transferred out of Sweden.
Articles containing mercury that are already in use may continue to be used. That said, such articles may not be placed on the market or be professionally transferred out of Sweden.
Exemptions from the general ban
Certain uses of mercury that are covered by harmonised EU regulations are exempted from the Swedish ban. EU law therefore takes precedence over national regulations, which means that mercury may be used in certain cases despite the general ban in Sweden. Examples of such use are batteries (the Batteries Directive), light sources and other electrical and electronic products (the RoHS Directive) and certain measuring instruments (the REACH Regulation) where limited concentrations of mercury may be present.
The Swedish Chemicals Agency’s Regulations (KIFS 2017:7) also include certain exemptions from the Swedish ban. Several of these exemptions are time-limited and allow certain uses of mercury in analytical chemicals and in certain measuring instruments. Also certain uses of dental amalgam is allowed up to 30 June 2018 on condition that a record is kept in accordance with the Regulations.
In addition to these exemptions from the general ban, the Swedish Chemicals Agency may grant a dispensation in individual cases.
Export ban on mercury from the EU
As of 2011 the EU Regulation on Mercury has prohibited all EU countries from exporting metallic mercury, certain mercury compounds and mixtures. The Regulation also contains provisions on the safe storage and disposal of metallic mercury considered to be waste, as well as provisions on how to dispose of waste mercury in a way that is safe to health and the environment.
A new Regulation on Mercury in 2018
On 1 January 2018 a new Regulation on Mercury came into force within the EU: (EU) 2017/852. This Regulation implements the Minamata Convention on mercury and regulates the use of mercury in a number of different areas. The EU export ban has been supplemented with an import ban on mercury and mercury mixtures. Certain specified products to which mercury has been added may not be exported, imported or manufactured. Furthermore, the use of amalgam is restricted; there are also requirements that dental clinics making use of dental amalgam or those using amalgam in fillings must have an amalgam separator installed.
The Regulation also regulates the use of mercury in industrial operations, the storage of waste mercury, etc.
The Minamata Convention – A global convention
The Minamata Convention on mercury will restrict and prohibit mercury in both products and industrial processes as of 2020. The Convention was signed in 2013 and came into force in August 2017.
About mercury – information at other authorities
There are several Swedish government authorities that are responsible in their respective fields for issues relating to mercury.