Official Journal of the European Union

C 318/115

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Directive 76/769/EEC relating to restrictions on the marketing of certain measuring devices containing mercury

COM(2006) 69 final — 2006/0018 (COD)

(2006/C 318/20)

On 8 March 2006 the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 95 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned proposal.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 11 July 2006. The rapporteur was Ms Cassina.

At its 429th plenary session, held on 13 and 14 September 2006 (meeting of 13 September), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 181 votes to 5 with 8 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions


On the basis of the comments made in points 2 and 3, the EESC:


supports the Commission's proposal and its choice of legal basis (Article 95 of the Treaty) and endorses the strategic goal of removing all mercury from the measuring devices referred to in point 2.2 below,


believes that the proposal is consistent with other Community standards and policies concerning the environment and public health,


calls for replacement with alternative, mercury-free products to be speeded up (maybe with incentives and information and awareness-raising campaigns to prevent potentially dangerous devices containing mercury continuing to remain in circulation) and for the cost to the consumer of this replacement to be considered too,


calls for differentiated collection to be provided for and for sellers to be made responsible for collecting discarded devices (as in the case of electric and electronic devices),


calls upon the Commission to specify the safeguards that have been put in place to ensure that the sectors excluded (devices for professional and industrial use) are required to comply with the objective of not releasing mercury into the environment,


calls upon Community and Member States' authorities to check carefully that imported products comply with EU legislation.

2.   Introduction and gist of the proposal


The proposal follows the approach laid down in the Communication of 28 January 2005 on a Community strategy concerning mercury  (1). Taking as its starting point the now universally — acknowledged fact that mercury is toxic and highly dangerous to humans, ecosystems and wildlife, the Communication proposes a series of measures to protect public health and the environment, based on eliminating the use of mercury from all activities where it is now possible to substitute alternative substances or products which would not have the current harmful effects on the nervous and immune systems and the reproductive organs.


In this context, the Commission sees the amendment (2) of Directive 76/769 as a stage in the implementation of the general strategy. It bans marketing of the following devices containing mercury:


fever thermometers;


other measuring devices for sale to the public (such as manometers, barometers, blood-pressure gauges).


However, on the basis of the bans and/or restrictions already in place in a number of Member States and, therefore, in the light of experience gained, devices and equipment used in science and industry are to be excluded from the ban on the grounds that they are relatively few in number and are used in highly specialised environments which are already subject to control standards and procedures concerning safety in the work place and management of dangerous waste or are covered by REACH.

3.   General comments


Although some Member States have already started phasing out mercury and substituting alternative products, an estimated (3) 33 tonnes of mercury is currently still being used in Europe each year for measuring and control devices, approximately 25-30 tonnes of which are placed on the market in thermometers.


Thus, mercury and its most toxic derivatives are present in the domestic waste stream because thermometers and other measuring devices are, for the most part, thrown away with household rubbish when they are discarded or break. Landfilling and other inadequate forms of disposal allow waste mercury to enter waste water and be released into the environment. Consequently, mercury infiltrates foodstuffs and is particularly dangerous for the aquatic food chain, making consumers of fish and seafood especially vulnerable (particularly in Mediterranean areas).


The EESC notes that devices exist and are already on sale which perform the same function as those referred to in the proposal and contain substances which are alternatives to mercury. It would therefore be possible to substitute them without delay, apparently at no additional cost (although cf. point 4.1(b), (c) and (e) below). However, the impact assessment gives no indication at all of the cost to the consumer of substituting these devices: the EESC calls for this cost to be quantified and for support measures to be incorporated into the mechanism for implementing the directive.


The EESC firmly supports the Commission's objective of banning marketing of the devices containing mercury listed in the proposal: no further proof is needed of the hazardous effects and persistence of mercury, and banning devices containing mercury would help to achieve a high level of protection of the environment and human health, as specified in the measure's legal basis (Article 95 of the Treaty), which the EESC believes to be absolutely right and proper.

4.   Specific comments


However, the EESC points out that:


if devices containing mercury used in professional environments or industry are to be excluded from the ban, there must be a guarantee that disposal and recycling of these devices, once they have been discarded, will include processing of mercury which will prevent it being released into the environment and causing environmental and public health hazards; it is important for proper controls, training support and advice to be in place, particularly in the craft and small-scale jewellery sector, where mercury is still widely used for specific processes;


both the impact assessment and the proposal seem to underestimate the problem posed by devices containing mercury which are still currently in use being thrown into urban waste: Member States' attention should be drawn to the need for/potential benefits of a system of ‘end-of-life’ incentives to ensure that these devices are phased out as fast as possible;


withdrawal of devices containing mercury which are still in circulation could be facilitated by financial support measures and, above all, by proper information campaigns targeting users to make them aware of the danger and urge them to act responsibly, asking them not to throw mercury away with urban waste or — even more importantly — to let children handle it; at the same time, suitable incentives should be provided for consumers who fast-track replacement;


differentiated collection managed by sellers of devices containing mercury should be the method used to withdraw these devices, along the lines of the arrangements laid down in the WEEE Directive;


particular attention should also be paid to imported products so that the benefits gained from restrictive European legislation are not cancelled out by products from third countries which do not give any consideration to the dangers of misusing mercury.

Brussels, 13 September 2006.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  COM(2005) 20 final.

(2)  The addition of a specific point 19 a) in Annex I of Directive 76/769/EEC.

(3)  On the basis of the information available from the Commission.