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Global mercury treaty would make Europe’s children brainier

Brussels, 7 January 2013 – Preventing environmental exposure to mercury could save the European Union €8-9 billion per year by protecting children’s brain development, according to a paper published in Environmental Health today. (1)

The most worrying aspect of human exposure to mercury is the effect of maternal levels on the fetus’ brain as it develops in the womb. Adults in Europe are exposed mainly through eating certain fish. Mercury accumulates in large predatory fish, such as tuna and swordfish, usually after being released into the air as a by-product in industrial processes such as coal-burning, and then being deposited into sea and rivers. (2)

The evidence that methylmercury (MeHg), formed in the environment from inorganic mercury, is a neurotoxicant (harmful to the brain) is well-documented. (3) Pre-natal exposures are of particular concern because smaller amounts of methylmercury can cause irreversible health effects in a developing brain compared with that of an adult.

Professor Philippe Grandjean, one of the study authors, explained how the estimate was developed. “If we convert the effects of MeHg on developing brains into IQ points then the benefits of controlling MeHg pollution equates to 700,000 points per year and monetary benefits of €8,000 to €9,000 million per year for the whole of the EU,” he said.

The new calculations were made possible by data gathered from a recent EU biomonitoring project. (4) Levels of mercury found in hair samples taken in 17 European countries showed one third to be above the 0.58 µg/g hair level shown to be safe in the most recent scientific studies. This suggests that 1.8 million of the 5.4 million babies born in European countries each year are affected by unsafe maternal mercury levels. About 200,000 infants would be exposed to a higher safety limit of 2.5 µg/g proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). (1)

Not every child in Europe is at equal risk. The mercury levels are lowest in Eastern Europe and highest in Southern Europe. In Spain, 88% of samples tested were found to be above the 0.58 µg/g safety level, a country in which fish consumption is particularly high. (1)

“These disturbing findings make a strong, legally binding treaty to control mercury pollution absolutely imperative,” says Genon Jensen, Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “We now have research that shows the extent of harmful exposures in Europe - and the economic benefits to the tune of billions of Euros each year which would be derived from preventing these exposures.”

“Europeans – and especially women – should be made immediately aware of the risks of exposure for their babies. But equally, the EU must do its utmost to achieve a strong global treaty if mercury pollution is to be properly controlled. A global treaty is to be decided at the UNEP meeting in Geneva on 13 January. HEAL is calling for a legally binding agreement, national implementation plans and specific health protective measures to enhance awareness regarding the adverse health effects of mercury exposure.” (5)

HEAL’s Stay Healthy, Stop Mercury campaign has been calling for action to control environmental mercury exposure on health grounds since 2006. The EU biomonitoring results from Spain confirm the worryingly high levels found by HEAL’s own small-scale study of hair samples published six years ago. Since then, HEAL has maintained pressure on EU policy makers through letters and awareness raising activities. (6)

If nothing is done, the problem is likely to worsen significantly. The Zero Mercury Working Group has shown that mercury levels in the Pacific Ocean are likely to increase by 50% by 2050 if current pollution trends continue unabated. (7)


What level is safe?

A particular public health concern is that health effects are occurring at levels considered safe just a few years ago, according to the latest research. This suggests that current health benchmarks should be revised. (6)

“There may not be a safe level for fetal exposure to mercury,” Ms Jensen says. “In 2006, we highlighted these uncertainties as well as our concerns that US and EU authorities did not agree on what represents a safe level of exposure to mercury. As more research results have become available, levels considered safe are steadily falling.”


Contacts

Genon K. Jensen, Executive Director, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Tel: +32 2 234 3642, Email: genon@env-health.org

Lisette van Vliet, Senior Policy Advisor, Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), lisette@env-health.org Tel: +32 2 234 36 45. Mobile: +32 484 614 528


Notes to editors

1. Economic benefits of methylmercury exposure control in Europe: Monetary value of neurotoxicity prevention, Martine Bellanger, Céline Pichery, Dominique Aerts, Marika Berglund, Argelia Castaño, Mája Čejchanová, Pierre Crettaz, Fred Davidson, Marta Esteban, Marc E. Fischer, Anca Elena Gurzau, Katarina Halzlova, Andromachi Katsonouri, Lisbeth E. Knudsen, Marike Kolossa-Gehring, Gudrun Koppen, Danuta Ligocka, Ana Miklavčič, M. Fátima Reis, Peter Rudnai, Janja Snoj Tratnik, Pál Weihe, Esben Budtz-Jørgensen, Philippe Grandjean, Environmental Health, a BioMed Central open access journal. See also Commentary by Elsie M Sunderland and Noelle E Selin, Environmental Health. Articles available on journal website from Monday, 7 January 2013, 00.01 (GMT) More information from Dr Hilary Glover, BioMed Central, Hilary.glover@biomedcentral.com

Tables in the paper provide national figures for all EU countries.

2. Halting the child brain drain, Why we need to tackle global mercury contamination, 2006, Health and Environment Alliance, “Stay Healthy, Stop Mercury” campaign.. Child development problems were first identified in the Faroe Island communities, where diet includes whale meat. A recent Canadian study has found an association between prenatal methylmercury exposure and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in childhood. Methylmercury has also been linked with possible harmful effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems in adults.

3. Methylmercury is formed from inorganic mercury by anaerobic aquatic organisms in bodies of water, sediments, and soils. Evidence that methylmercury is a neurotoxicant is provided in Grandjean P, Herz KT: Methylmercury and brain development: imprecision and underestimation of developmental neurotoxicity in humans. Mt Sinai J Med 2011, 78(1):107-118, and Mergler D, Anderson HA, Chan LH, Mahaffey KR, Murray M, Sakamoto M, Stern AH: Methylmercury exposure and health effects in humans: a worldwide concern. Ambio 2007, 36(1):3-11.

4. Cyprus EU Presidency press release, European projects measure chemicals in people across Europe for the first time.

5. The fifth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury (INC5) will be held in Geneva, from 13 to 18 January 2013. HEAL and many of its members support a motion by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan, available from SPDI here.

6. See HEAL’s recent joint letter to environment ministers of EU member states: Last chance to develop strong treaty to reduce mercury exposure and HEAL Fact Sheet, Mercury and Fish Consumption.

7. Ahead of UN Treaty negotiations, reports show greater mercury risks than earlier thought, 4 December 2012, Mercury Policy Group.



Last updated on 10 January 2013

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