Indicator Assessment

Heavy metal emissions

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-171-en
  Also known as: AIR 001
Published 21 Dec 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
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  • Across the EEA-32 countries, emissions of lead have decreased by 91%, mercury by 68% and cadmium by 70% between 1990 and 2009. For each substance, the most significant sources in 2009 are from energy-related sources associated with 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 for example 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 in 1990 when it contributed around 73% of total emissions, emissions from the road transport sector decreased since then by nearly 99%. Nevertheless, the road transport sector still remains an important source of lead, contributing around 10% of total lead emission in the EEA-32 region. However since 2002 little progress has been made in reducing emissions further; 98% of the total reduction from 1990 emissions of lead had been achieved by 2002.
  • Environmental context: Heavy metals (such as cadmium, lead and mercury) are recognised as being toxic to biota. All have the quality of being progressively accumulated higher up the food chain, such that chronic exposure of lower organisms to much lower concentrations can expose predatory 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. Specifically, 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, rather having long residence times in the atmosphere and hence are subject to long-range transport processes.

Change (%) in cadmium emissions 1990-2009 (EEA member countries)

Note: The reported change in cadmium (Cd) emissions for each country, 1990-2009.

Change (%) in mercury emissions 1990-2009 (EEA member countries)

Note: The reported change in mercury (Hg) emissions for each country, 1990-2009.

Change (%) in lead emissions 1990-2009 (EEA member countries)

Note: The reported change in lead emissions for each country, 1990-2009.

In the EEA-32 region, emissions of emissions of lead have decreased by 91%, mercury by 68% and cadmium by 70% between 1990 and 2009 (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-32 emissions of cadmium have declined by 70% between 1990 and 2009. 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 27 EEA-32 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 Romania (93%), United Kingdom (90%), Estonia (89%), Bulgaria (88%), Lithuania (88%), France (88%), Slovakia (83%) and Finland (81%).

The largest emitters of cadmium in 2009 were Poland (responsible for 40% of total EEA-32 emissions), Spain (13%), Italy (7%), Germany (4%), Hungary (4%) and Portugal (4%). Emissions for two countries (Cyprus and Malta) have increased during this period (Figure 3).


EEA-32 emissions of mercury have declined by 68% between 1990 and 2009. This is attributed to in e.g. the industrial sector on improved controls on mercury cells and their replacement by diaphragm or membrane cells, in the power and heat generating sectors by the decline of coal use caused by fuel-switching in many countries from coal to gas and other energy sources, and coupled again with the effect of various EU directives and regulations mandating reductions in heavy metal emissions.

As with cadmium, a number of countries have made substantial cuts in emissions since 1990. This includes Bulgaria (91%), Slovakia (87%), Switzerland (85%), France (84%) and Denmark (83%). Emissions for three countries (Cyprus, Malta and Lithuania) have increased during this period (Figure 3).


EEA-32 emissions of lead have declined by 91% between 1990 and 2009. This is primarily due to reductions made by countries in 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 2009 the largest emitters of lead were Poland (responsible for 22% of total EEA-32 emissions), Bulgaria (14%), Spain (11%) and Italy (10%). All countries report lower emissions of lead in 2009 compared with the year 1990, the only exception being Malta (Figure 4), in which increased emissions in the ‘Energy production and distribution’ sector have resulted in an overall increase of 74% in lead emissions since 1990.

Sector split of emissions of selected heavy metals (EEA member countries)

Note: The contribution made by different sectors to emissions of cadmium - Cd; mercury - Hg; and lead - Pb.

Change in cadmium, mercury and lead emissions for each sector between 1990 and 2009 (EEA member countries)

Note: Percentage change in cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb) emissions for each sector between 1990 and 2009.

For the heavy metals cadmium, mercury and lead, the most significant emissions sources in 2009 were from energy-related sources associated with fuel combustion, particularly from public power and heat generating facilities and from energy combustion 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 nearly 99%) 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 10.1% of total lead emission in the EEA-32 region. Residual lead in fuel, from engine lubricants and parts, and from tyre and brake wear contribute to the ongoing lead emissions from this sector.

Lead and cadmium emissions have also both decreased from certain industrial processes eg from metal refining and smelting activities, reflecting improved pollution abatement control, and in some countries being 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. Past changes in fuel use within this sector since 1990, 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 are mainly responsible for the past decreases in emissions from this sector.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

  • This indicator tracks trends in anthropogenic emissions of heavy metals over time, since 1990.
  • The indicator also provides information on emissions by sector: energy production and distribution; energy use in industry; industrial processes; road transport; non-road transport; commercial, institutional and households; solvent and product use; agriculture; waste; and others.
  • The geographical area covered by this indicator is the EEA-33 region. The EEA-33 region includes the countries of the EU-28 (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom), the EFTA-4 (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) and Turkey.
  • The temporal coverage of this indicator is the same as the LRTAP Report.


The unit used in this indicator is the tonne (metric ton) and percentages (%)


Policy context and targets

Context description

Coupled with improved control and abatement techniques, targeted international and EU legislation has led to good progress being made in most EEA-33 countries towards reducing heavy metal emissions. Such legislation includes:

  • the 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals (to the 1979 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on LRTAP), which targets three particularly harmful substances: Cd, Hg and Pb;
  • EU Directive 2001/80/EC on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants (the LCP Directive), which aims to limit heavy metal emissions via dust control and absorption of heavy metals;
  • EU Directive 2010/75/EU on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control) (EU, 2010), which aims to prevent or minimise pollution of water, air and soil; this directive targets certain industrial, agricultural and waste treatment installations;
  • the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) Regulation (166/2006/EC), under the requirements of which emissions of a number of heavy metals released from certain industrial facilities are also estimated and reported;
  • the EU Directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (2008/50/EC) and Directive 2004/107/EC relating to heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air, which contain provisions, and target and limit values for the further control of air pollutants in ambient air.

There are also a number of specific EU environmental quality and emission standards for heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in coastal and inland waters, drinking waters, etc. These have only indirect relevance to air emissions as they do not directly specify emission or precipitation quality requirements, but rather specify the required quality of receiving waters. Such measures include the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). Other measures include restrictions on the use of heavy metals in certain consumer products, such as the EC Regulation on the banning of exports of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures, and the safe storage of metallic mercury (No 1102/2008), as well as Directive 2007/51/EC amending Council Directive 7/769/EEC relating to restrictions on the marketing of certain measuring devices containing mercury.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury — a global, legally binding treaty — was agreed by governments in January 2013 and formally adopted as international law on 10 October 2013.


The Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals to the UNECE LRTAP Convention obliges parties to reduce their emissions of Cd, Hg and Pb from 1990 levels (or an alternative year from 1985 to 1995 inclusive).

Related policy documents



Methodology for indicator calculation

This indicator is based on the national total and sectoral emissions data that were officially reported to the EEA and the UNECE/Co-operative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-range Transmission of Air Pollutants in Europe (EMEP) LRTAP Convention in 2016. For the EU-28, the data used are consistent with the emissions data reported by the EU in its annual submission to the LRTAP Convention.

Recommended methodologies for emission inventory estimation are included in the EMEP/EEA Air Pollutant Emission Inventory Guidebook (EMEP/EEA, 2016). Base data are available from the EEA Data Service and the EMEP website. Where necessary, gaps in reported data are filled by the European Topic Centre on Air and Climate Change (ETC/ACC) using simple interpolation techniques (see below). The final gap-filled data used in this indicator are available from the EEA Data Service. Base data, reported in the UNECE/EMEP nomenclature for reporting (NFR) sector format, are aggregated into the following EEA sector codes to obtain a consistent reporting format across all countries and pollutants:

  • Energy production and distribution: emissions from public heat and electricity generation, oil refining, the production of solid fuels, the extraction and distribution of solid fossil fuels, and geothermal energy;
  • Energy use in industry: emissions from combustion processes used in the manufacturing industry, including boilers, gas turbines and stationary engines;
  • Industrial processes and product use: emissions derived from non-combustion-related processes, such as the production of minerals, chemicals and metal production, and non-combustion-related emissions mainly from the services and household sectors, including activities such as paint application, dry-cleaning and other uses of solvents;
  • Road transport: light and heavy duty vehicles, passenger cars and motorcycles;
  • Non-road transport: railways, domestic shipping, certain aircraft movements and non-road mobile machinery used in agriculture and forestry;
  • Commercial, institutional and households: emissions principally occurring from fuel combustion in the services and household sectors;
  • Agriculture: manure management, fertiliser application and the field burning of agricultural wastes;
  • Waste: incineration and wastewater management;
  • Other: emissions included in the national total for the entire territory not allocated to any other sector.


The following table shows the conversion of the NFR sector codes used for reporting by countries into EEA sector codes:

EEA classification

Non-greenhouse gases (NFR)


National totals

National total


Energy production and distribution

1A1, 1A3e, 1B


Energy use in industry



Road transport



Non-road transport (non-road mobile machinery)

1A3 (excl. 1A3b)


Industrial processes and product use












Commercial, institutional and households

1A4ai, 1A4aii, 1A4bi, 1A4bii, 1A4ci, 1A4cii, 1A5a, 1A5b





Methodology for gap filling

An improved gap-filling methodology was implemented in 2010 that enables a complete time-series trend for the main air pollutants (e.g. nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs), ammonia (NH3) and carbon monoxide (CO)) to be compiled. Where countries did not report emissions for any year, it meant that gap-filling could not be applied. For these pollutants, therefore, the aggregated data are not yet complete and are likely to underestimate true emissions. Further methodological details of the gap-filling procedure are provided in Section 1.4.5, 'Data gaps and gap-filling', of the European Union emission inventory report 1990-2017 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP).

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

The use of gap filling for countries that have not reported emissions for one or more years can potentially lead to artificial trends, but is considered unavoidable if a comprehensive and comparable set of emissions data for European countries is required for policy analysis purposes.

Data sets uncertainty

The Pb inventory is more uncertain than the SO2 and NOx inventories, and the certainty of the emissions data varies over the time series. This is because different source sectors have dominated at different times as a result of the very significant reductions in emissions from key sources in 1990, notably from the road transport sector. The Pb emission estimates from key sources in 1990 were based on measured concentrations of Pb in fuels, which were tightly regulated prior to being phased out in the late 1990s. This gives a high degree of confidence in the estimates for the fuel combustion sources that dominated emissions in the early 1990s, but are now much reduced. In more recent years, the level of emissions is estimated to be very much lower and emissions are derived from a smaller number of sources. The metal processing industries are mainly regulated under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive and the estimates provided by plant operators are based on emission measurements or emission factors that have been researched for the specific process type, and are, therefore, likely to be quite accurate. Emissions from other smaller scale combustion and process sources from industrial and commercial activities are less well documented and the estimates are based on emission factors that are less certain.

Rationale uncertainty

This indicator is regularly updated by the EEA and is used in state-of-the-environment assessments. The uncertainties related to the methodology and the data sets are therefore of importance. Any uncertainties in the calculations and data sets need to be accurately communicated in the assessment, in order to prevent erroneous information from influencing policy actions or processes.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Performance indicator (Type B - Does it matter?)
Indicator codes
  • AIR 001
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage