Indicator Assessment

Heavy metal emissions

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-171-en
  Also known as: AIR 001
Published 16 Oct 2018 Last modified 11 May 2021
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  • Across the EEA-33 countries, emissions of lead decreased by 93 %, mercury by 71 % and cadmium by 64 % between 1990 and 2016.
  • The majority of the decrease in lead emissions occurred by 2004 mainly as a result of the phase out of leaded petrol across Europe. The largest emission source presently is 'Energy use in industry', contributing around one-third of total emissions.
  • Since 1990 the two sectors contributing most to the decrease in mercury emissions are 'Energy use in industry' and 'Industrial processes and product use'.

    Changes in cadmium emissions


    Changes in mercury emissions


    Changes in lead emissions


    There are only a few areas in Europe [1] where ambient air concentrations of cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), arsenic (As) and nickel (Ni) are above the limit or target values. Exceedances of the limit or target values and human exposure at these locations is very much a local problem, typically caused by specific industrial plants. However, the atmospheric deposition of toxic metals contributes to the exposure of ecosystems and organisms to toxic metals. Bioaccumulation can subsequently occur in the food chain, thus affecting human health.

    Within the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), emissions of heavy metals are controlled by the Amended Protocol on Heavy Metals [2], which requires parties to reduce emissions of selected metals to below 1990 levels. Releases of Hg are also controlled by the United Nations Environment Programme Minimata Convention [3].

    In the EEA-33 region, emissions of Cd and Hg made up approximately 35 % and 30 %, respectively,of corresponding total emissions in 1990. Emissions of Pb have declined to approximately one tenth of total 1990 emission levels.

    A combination of targeted legislation (for details see Policy context and targets in the Indicator specification and metadata section), improved controls and abatement techniques have, in general, led to significant progress being made in most countries to reduce heavy metal emissions.


    EEA-33 emissions of Cd have declined by approximately 35 % since 1990. This is largely because of improvements in abatement technologies for waste water treatment and incinerators, and in metal refining and smelting facilities. EC directives and regulations that mandate reductions and limits on heavy metal emissions (e.g. the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) [4] and associated permitting conditions) have also contributed to reducing Cd emissions.

    Ten EEA-33 countries (that reported relevant data) have not achieved emission reductions for Cd in excess of 66 % since 1990.

    In 2016 the largest emitters of Cd were Germany and Poland, each accounting for almost 18 % of total EEA-33 emissions.


    EEA-33 emissions of Hg have declined by approximately 30 % since 1990. This is attributed chiefly to changes in the industrial sector, such as improvements in emission controls on Hg cells and their replacement by diaphragm or membrane cells, and fuel switching from coal to gas and other energy sources in the power- and heat-generating sectors in many countries. In addition, emissions have been reduced by the effect of various EU directives and regulations that mandate reductions in heavy metal emissions.

    All of the EEA-33 countries (with the exception of Cyprus, Iceland, Lichtenstein,Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, Slovenia and Turkey which did not report data) have reported that emissions of Hg have decreased since 1990. More than a third of countries which submitted emission data, have reported emission reductions of more than 80 %.

    Since 1990, the largest reduction in Hg emissions has been achieved by the 'Energy production and distribution' sector, i.e. the public power- and heat-generation sector. Emissions of Hg from this sector are closely linked to the use of coal, which contains Hg as a contaminant. Changes in fuel use within this sector since 1990 are mainly responsible for decreases in emissions from this sector, particularly fuel switching from coal to gas and other energy sources in many countries, the closure of older, inefficient coal-burning plants and improved pollution abatement equipment, etc.


    In 2016 EEA-33 emissions of Pb have declined to less than one tenth of total 1990 emission levels. This is primarily because of 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).

    The largest emitter of Pb is currently Poland (25 % of total EEA-33 emissions)..

    [1] EEA, 2017

    [2] EB Decision 2012/6, 2012

    [3] UNEP, Minimata Convention

    [4] EC, IED 2010/75/EU, 2010

    Sector split of emissions of selected heavy metals

    Bar chart
    Column chart

    Changes in cadmium, mercury and lead emissions for each sector (EEA-33)

    Bar chart
    Column chart

    Currently, the largest emission sources of the heavy metals Cd, Hg and Pb are energy-related sources associated with fuel combustion. The major contributors are public power- and heat-generating facilities, and fuel combustion for energy use in industrial facilities. Emissions from the ‘Commercial, institutional and households’ sector are also a large source of Cd, accounting for almost a one fifth of current Cd emissions in the EEA-33 region.

    Lead from road transport: as noted earlier, 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. Large reductions (over 98 %) in Pb emissions from the road transport sector have been responsible for most of the overall reduction in emissions since 1990. Nevertheless, the road transport sector still remains an important source of Pb, contributing approximately 17 % of total Pb emissions in the EEA-33. Residual Pb in fuel, engine lubricants and parts, and tyre and brake wear continue to contribute to Pb emissions from this sector.

    Industrial processes: emissions of both Pb and Cd from some industrial processes, such as metal refining and smelting activities, have also decreased. This reflects improved pollution abatement control and, in some countries, is a result of economic restructuring and the closure of older and more polluting industrial facilities.

    Mercury from energy production: since 1990, the largest reduction (in absolute terms) in Hg emissions has been achieved by the 'Energy production and distribution' sector, i.e. the public power- and heat-generation sector. Emissions of Hg from this sector are closely linked to the use of coal, which contains Hg as a contaminant. Changes in fuel use within the 'Energy production and distribution' sector since 1990 are responsible for most of the decrease in emissions from this sector, particularly fuel switching from coal to gas and other energy sources in many countries, the closure of older, inefficient coal-burning plants and improved pollution abatement equipment, etc.

    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