Technology & Science

European Union bans sale of toxic mercury thermometers

The European Union has banned the use of mercury in thermometers and other devices as a part of a larger strategy to end the use of the highly toxic substance across the continent.

The European Union has banned the use of mercury in thermometers and other devices as a part of a larger strategy to end the use of the highly toxic substance across the continent.

The European Parliament approved on Tuesday a ban on the sale of new mercury fever thermometers, manometers and other measurement devices, citing its toxic effects on humans, ecosystems and wildlife. The new legislation should become national law in the EU's 27 member countries by spring 2009.

Mercury has gained global infamy for its negative effects on human and environmental health. Chronic exposure can cause damage to the brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver, and is especially harmful to a developing fetus. Mercury exposure is known to cause developmental problems in children.

Up to 90 per cent of all mercury-based measuring devices are found in the home, where they pose a danger if the element comes in contact with skin or is inhaled. Most of these products will eventually be sent to the landfill and leach mercury into the ground.

The Commission of the European Communities says that safer alternatives to mercury exist for nearly all the instruments covered by the ban, which is expected to lead to an annual reduction of mercury emissions by 33 tonnes in the EU. Between 25 tonnesand 30 tonnes of those emissions come from thermometers alone.

No ban in Canada

In the United States, 19 states have restricted or banned the sale of mercury-containing thermometers. It also has universal waste rules that apply to the disposal of mercury products.

No such ban exists in Canada, despite recommendations from doctors that mercury be eliminated from the home or other environments where children could be exposed to it.

In 2001, Environment Canada had a pilot project whereby consumers could bring their mercury thermometers to participating drug stores for proper disposal. The project has since ended.

Environmental group Pollution Probe recently made a submission in favour of better mercury regulations to the federal government, which is in the early stages of a risk management study for mercury products.

"We also would like to see a collection and recycling program in place for the products that do currently exist so that they don't end up in landfill or incineration," said Pollution Probe's senior project manager Krista Friesen, who hailed the EU's decision for being "very progressive."

Fish are the largest source of human exposure to mercury, which binds to the proteins in fish tissue. A recent study of the Great Lakes showedthe water to be full of toxic chemicals, including mercury, that make many of its fish dangerous forconsumption.