Heavy metal emissions (APE 005) - Assessment published Dec 2013
Air pollution (Primary topic)
Typology: Performance indicator (Type B - Does it matter?)
- APE 005
Key policy question: What progress is being made in reducing emissions of heavy metals?
- Across the EEA-33 countries, emissions of lead have decreased by 89%, mercury by 66% and cadmium by 64% between 1990 and 2011. For each substance, the most significant sources in 2011 are from energy-related fuel combustion, particularly from public power and heat generating facilities, and from industrial facilities.
- Much progress has been made since the early 1990s in reducing point source emissions of cadmium and lead (e.g. emissions from industrial facilities). This has been achieved through improvements in, for example, abatement technologies for wastewater treatment, incinerators and in metal refining and smelting industries, and in some countries by the closure of older industrial facilities as a consequence of economic re-structuring.
- In the case of mercury, the observed decrease in emissions may be largely attributed to improved controls on mercury cells used in industrial processes (e.g. in the chlor-alkali process) including the replacement of old mercury cells by diaphragm or membrane cells, and the general decline of coal use across Europe as a result of fuel switching.
- The promotion of unleaded petrol within the EU and in other EEA member countries through a combination of fiscal and regulatory measures has been a particular success story. EU Member States have completely phased out the use of leaded petrol, a goal that was regulated by Directive 98/70/EC. From being the largest source of lead emissions in 1990, when it contributed around 76% of the EEA-33 total for lead, emissions from the road transport sector have decreased by nearly 98%. Nevertheless, the road transport sector still remains an important source of lead, contributing around 12% of total lead emissions in the EEA-33 region. However since 2004 little progress has been made in reducing emissions further; 97.9% of the total reduction from 1990 emissions of lead had been achieved by 2004.
- Environmental context: Heavy metals (such as cadmium, lead and mercury) are recognised as being toxic to biota. All are prone to biomagnification, i.e. being progressively accumulated higher up the food chain, such that bioaccumulation in lower organisms at relatively low concentrations can expose higher consumer organisms, including humans, to potentially harmful concentrations. In humans they are also of direct concern because of their toxicity, their potential to cause cancer and their potential ability to cause harmful effects at low concentrations.
- The relative toxic/carcinogenic potencies of heavy metals are compound specific, but exposure to heavy metals has been linked with developmental retardation, various cancers and kidney damage. Metals are persistent throughout the environment, and cadmium, lead and mercury are among those heavy metals that are already a focus of international and EU action. These substances tend not just to be confined to a given geographical region, and thus are not always open to effective local control. For example, in the case of cadmium, much is found in fine particles which do not readily dry-deposit, and therefore have long residence times in the atmosphere and are subject to long-range transport processes.
In the EEA-33 region, emissions of lead have decreased by 89%, mercury by 66% and cadmium by 64% between 1990 and 2011 (Figure 1). A combination of targeted legislation (for details see Indicator specification - policy context) coupled with improved controls and abatement techniques has in general led to significant progress being made in most countries to reduce heavy metal emissions (Figure 2, Figure 3 and Figure 4).
EEA-33 emissions of cadmium have declined by 64% between 1990 and 2011. This is largely due to improvements in abatement technologies for wastewater treatment, incinerators and in metal refining and smelting facilities, coupled with the effect of EC directives and regulations mandating reductions and limits on heavy metal emissions (e.g. the IED, IPPC directive and associated permitting conditions).
A number of countries (11 of the 30 EEA33 countries which have reported 1990 emissions) have achieved significant emission reductions in excess of 75% since 1990 (Figure 2). Countries that have reported the largest percentage reductions include Lithuania (96%), Malta (92%), the United Kingdom (88%), France (88%), Hungary (87%), Slovakia (87%), Estonia (85%) and the Czech Republic (81%).
The largest emitters of cadmium in 2011 were Poland (responsible for 46% of total EEA-33 emissions), Spain (11%), Italy (8%), Germany (6%), Greece (3%) and the United Kingdom (3%). Emissions from two countries (Liechtenstein and Cyprus) have increased during this period (Figure 3).
EEA-33 emissions of mercury have declined by 66% between 1990 and 2011. This is attributed chiefly to changes in the industrial sector such as improving controls on mercury cells and their replacement by diaphragm or membrane cells, fuel-switching in the power and heat generating sectors from coal to gas and other energy sources in many countries, and the effect of various EU directives and regulations mandating reductions in heavy metal emissions.
All but two (Liechtenstein and Greece) of the EEA-33 countries have reported lower emissions in 2011 than 1990, and a number of countries have made substantial cuts in emissions since 1990. The greatest reductions have been reported in Malta (98%), Lithuania (95%), Slovakia (91%), Denmark (87%) and Hungary (87%).
Since 1990 the largest reduction in Mercury emissions (60.2 kt in absolute terms) has been achieved by the 'Energy production and distribution' sector i.e. public power and heat generation. Mercury emissions from this sector are closely linked to the use of coal, which contains mercury as a contaminant. Changes in fuel use within this sector since 1990 are mainly responsible for the past decreases in emissions from this sector, particularly fuel switching in many countries from coal to gas and other energy sources, closure of older inefficient coal-burning plants, and improved pollution abatement equipment etc.
EEA-33 emissions of lead have declined by 89% between 1990 and 2011, primarily due to reductions made by countries in emissions from the road transport sector. The promotion of unleaded petrol within the EU through a combination of fiscal and regulatory measures has been a particular success story. EU Member States and other EEA member countries have now phased out the use of leaded petrol, a goal that was regulated in the EU by the Directive on the Quality of Petrol and Diesel Fuels (98/70/EC).
In 2011 the largest emitters of lead were Poland (responsible for 22% of total EEA-33 emissions), Greece (19%) and Italy (11%). The only country to report higher emissions of lead in 2011 compared with 1990 was Malta (Figure 4), in which lead emissions from the road transport and energy production and distribution sectors, which represent 57% and 43% of the national total respectively, were dramatically higher than 2009. Road transport was only reported from 2010 and energy production and distribution increased twenty five-fold between 2010 and 2011, thus skewed the trend in the national total to show a sixteen-fold increase since 1990.
Specific policy question: How do different sectors and processes contribute to emissions of heavy metals?
For the heavy metals cadmium, mercury and lead, the most significant emissions sources in 2011 were from energy-related sources associated with fuel combustion, particularly from public power and heat generating facilities and from fuel combustion for energy use in industrial facilities (Figure 5).
As noted earlier, for lead, the promotion of unleaded petrol within the EU and in other EEA member countries through a combination of fiscal and regulatory measures has been a key success story within Europe. The large reduction of lead emissions from the road transport sector (of over 98%) has been responsible for the vast majority of the overall reduction of lead emissions since 1990. Nevertheless, the road transport sector still remains an important source of lead, contributing around 15.4% of total lead emission in the EEA-33 region. Residual lead in fuel, from engine lubricants and parts, and from tyre and brake wear contribute to the on-going lead emissions from this sector.
Lead and cadmium emissions have also both decreased from certain industrial processes, such as metal refining and smelting activities, reflecting improved pollution abatement control, and in some countries as a result of economic restructuring and the closure of older and more polluting industrial facilities.
For mercury, since 1990 the largest reduction (in absolute terms) has been achieved by the 'Energy production and distribution' sector i.e. public power and heat generation. Mercury emissions from this sector are closely linked to the use of coal, which contains mercury as a contaminant. Changes in fuel use within this sector since 1990 are mainly responsible for the past decreases in emissions from this sector, particularly fuel switching in many countries from coal to gas and other energy sources, closure of older inefficient coal-burning plants, and improved pollution abatement equipment etc.
National emissions reported to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention)
provided by United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (Environment and Human Settlements Division, UNECE)
More information about this indicator
See this indicator specification for more details.
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoMartin Adams
EEA Management Plan2013 1.1.2 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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