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Indicator Assessment

Heavy metal emissions in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-171-en
  Also known as: AIR 001
Published 13 Oct 2021 Last modified 13 Oct 2021
9 min read

Heavy metals accumulate in ecosystems and damage human health. In line with the EU’s commitments under the Air Convention, specific legislation led to reductions in emissions of heavy metals across Europe from 1990 levels. Between 2005 and 2019, emissions have continued to decline, with lead emissions decreasing by 44%, mercury emissions by 45% and cadmium emissions by 33% across the EU-27 Member States. In 2019, Germany, Italy and Poland contributed most to heavy metal emissions in the EU.

Percentage emission reductions in 2019 of primary heavy metals compared with 2005 levels

Note: The figure shows changes in cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb) emissions between 2005 and 2019, based on data reported by EU Member States under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Heavy metals such as Cd, Hg and Pb are toxic to biota. Although ambient air concentrations are above limit values in only a few areas in Europe, typically linked to specific industrial plants, the atmospheric deposition of heavy metals leads to exposure of ecosystems and organisms and bioaccumulation in the food chain, with damaging effects on human health (EEA, 2020a). Reducing emissions of heavy metals is therefore a focus of international and EU action.

The EU is a party to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention), a pan-European framework for reducing air pollution including heavy metals (under the Aarhus Protocol) (UNECE, 2021a, 2021b). Releases of Hg are also controlled by the United Nations Environment Programme Minamata Convention (UNEP, 2021).

Improvements in abatement technologies and targeted legislation — for instance the Large Combustion Plant Directive (EU, 2001), the Industrial Emissions Directive (EU, 2010) and the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Regulation (EU, 2006) — have contributed to good progress being made in reducing heavy metal emissions in the EU since 1990.

In 2012, the 1998 Aarhus Protocol was amended and more stringent controls on heavy metals were introduced (UNECE, 2021b). Moreover, in 2016, the EU’s National Emission Reduction Commitments Directive (NECD) was amended to include new reporting requirements for Member States, including the requirement to provide annual information on heavy metal emissions (EU, 2016). The amended NECD also introduced more ambitious reduction commitments, with the aim of reducing the health impacts of air pollution by half by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

Between 2005 and 2019, emissions of Cd, Hg and Pb declined in the EU-27 Member States by 33%, 45% and 44%, respectively. The manufacturing and extractive industry sector still accounts for the majority of Cd, Hg and Pb emissions (57.6%, 43.1% and 61.8%, respectively), but emissions from this sector have declined since 2005, with both Hg and Pb emissions declining by around 40%. Declines in emissions from the energy supply sector are also notable, with Cd and Hg emissions declining by 58.4% and 41.1%, respectively. The sharp decline in heavy metal emissions between 2008 and 2009 coincides with the economic downturn at that time.

Percentage emission reductions of primary heavy metals of EU Member States in 2019 compared with 2005 levels

Note: The figure shows changes in cadmium, mercury, and lead emissions between 2005 and 2019, based on data reported by EU Member States under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Red dots indicate an increase in emissions and blue dots indicate a decrease.

Between 2005 and 2019, most Member States reduced their emissions of Cd, Hg and Pb, with reductions of 10% or more being achieved by 18, 23 and 24 Member States, respectively. Emission increases were also seen during this period; however, in some cases, these increases are not necessarily cause for concern, as they reflect reflectively small increases in absolute emissions from low baseline levels, for instance in the cases of Austria, Denmark and Malta.

In 2019, the countries with the highest emissions were Germany, Italy and Poland, accounting for around half of total EU emissions for all three heavy metals. While Germany and Italy have reduced their emissions of all three heavy metals since 2005, in Austria, emissions of Cd and Pb have increased by 13% and 11%, while Poland’s and Hungary’s emissions of Cd have increased by 4%.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator tracks trends in anthropogenic emissions of heavy metals over time, since 2005. Heavy metals (such as Cd, Hg and Pb) are known to be directly toxic to biota. All heavy metals are progressively accumulated relatively high up the food chain, such that chronic exposure of lower organisms to relatively low concentrations of heavy metals can lead to the exposure of predatory organisms, including humans, to potentially harmful concentrations. They are of concern for human health because of their toxicity, their potential to cause cancer and their ability to cause harmful effects even at low concentrations. Their toxic/carcinogenic potencies are metal/compound specific.

Units

Percentages (%) are used as the unit of measure in this indicator, i.e. the percentage change in emissions.


 

Policy context and targets

Context description

In particular, exposure to heavy metals has been linked to developmental retardation, various cancers, kidney damage and even death in some instances of exposure to very high concentrations. The heavy metals that cause these effects are already a focus of international and EU action. Their possible carcinogenic, immunological and reproductive effects are of major concern, but more recently concern has also been expressed over their possible harmful effects on human development.

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

  • the 1998 Aarhus Protocol on Heavy Metals (under the 1979 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) LRTAP Convention) (UNECE, 2021a), which targets three particularly harmful substances — Cd, Hg and Pb — and obliges parties to reduce their emissions of these heavy metals from 1990 levels (or an alternative year from 1985 to 1995 inclusive) (UNECE, 2021b);
  • Directive 2001/80/EC on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants, which aims to limit heavy metal emissions via dust control and absorption of heavy metals (EU, 2001);
  • Directive 2010/75/EU on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control), which aims to prevent or minimise pollution of water, air and soil; this directive targets certain industrial, agricultural and waste treatment installations (EU, 2010);
  • 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 estimated and reported (EU, 2006);
  • Directive 2008/50/EC on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (EU, 2008b) and Directive 2004/107/EC relating to heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air (EU, 2004), which contain provisions, and target and limit values for the further control of air pollutants in ambient air.

There are also several specific EU environmental quality and emission standards for heavy metals 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 (Directive 2000/60/EC) (EU, 2000).

Other measures include restrictions on the use of heavy metals in certain consumer products, such as Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 on the banning of exports of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures, and the safe storage of metallic mercury (EU, 2008c), 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 (EU, 2007).

The Minamata Convention on Mercury — a global, legally binding treaty — was agreed on by governments in January 2013 and formally adopted as international law on 10 October 2013 (UNEP, 2021).

Targets

No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified

 

Methodology

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 2019 For the 27 EU Member States, 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 (EEA, 2019). Base data are available from the EEA Data Service (EEA, 2020c) and the EMEP website (CEIP, 2021). 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.

 

References

CEIP, 2021, ‘EMEP Centre on Emission Inventories and Projections’, Centre on Emission Inventories and Projections (https://www.ceip.at) accessed 20 April 2021.

EEA, 2019,EMEP/EEA air pollutant emission inventory guidebook 2019 — technical guidance to prepare national emission inventories, EEA Report No 13/2019, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/emep-eea-guidebook-2019).

EEA, 2020a,Air quality in Europe — 2020 report, EEA report No 9/2020, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2020-report) accessed 1 April 2020.

EEA, 2021,European Union emission inventory report 1990-2019, under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP), EEA Report No 5/2021, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/lrtap-1990-2019/) accessed 19 August 2021.

EEA, 2020c, ‘National emissions reported to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP Convention)’, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/data/national-emissions-reported-to-the-convention-on-long-range-transboundary-air-pollution-lrtap-convention-14) accessed 16 April 2021.

UNECE, 2021a, ‘Air’ (https://unece.org/environment-policy/air) accessed 20 April 2021.

UNECE, 2021b, ‘Protocol on heavy metals’, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (https://unece-modl.dotsoft.gr/environment-policyair/protocol-heavy-metals) accessed 20 April 2021.

UNEP, 2021, ‘UN Environment Programme — Minamata Convention on Mercury’, United Nations Environment Programme (http://www.mercuryconvention.org) accessed 20 April 2021.

 

Policy references

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1-73).

EU, 2001, Directive 2001/80/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2001 on the limitation of emissions of certain pollutants into the air from large combustion plants (OJ L 309, 27/11/2001, pp. 1–21).

EU, 2004, Directive 2004/107/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 December 2004 relating to arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in ambient air (OJ L 23, 26.1.2005, pp. 3-16).

EU, 2006, Regulation (EC) No 166/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 January 2006 concerning the establishment of a European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register and amending Council Directives 91/689/EEC and 96/61/EC (OJ L 33, 4.2.2006, pp. 1–17).

EU, 2007, Directive 2007/51/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 September 2007 amending Council Directive 76/769/EEC relating to restrictions on the marketing of certain measuring devices containing mercury. (https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32007L0051&qid=1629442580204) accessed 03 August 2021

EU, 2008a, Directive 2008/1/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 concerning integrated pollution prevention and control (OJ L 24, 29.1.2008, pp. 8-29).

EU, 2008b, Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 May 2008 on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe (OJ L 152, 11.6.2008, pp. 1-44).

EU, 2008c, Regulation (EC) No 1102/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2008 on the banning of exports of metallic mercury and certain mercury compounds and mixtures and the safe storage of metallic mercury (OJ L 304, 14.11.2008, pp. 75-79).

EU, 2010, Directive 2010/75/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 November 2010 on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control) (OJ L 334, 17.12.2010, p. 17-119).

EU, 2016, Directive (EU) 2016/2284 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 December 2016 on the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants, amending Directive 2003/35/EC and repealing Directive 2001/81/EC (OJ L 344, 17.12.2016, p. 1–31).

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 to be compiled. Where countries did not report emissions for any year, it meant that gap filling could not be performed. 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 the European Union emission inventory report 1990-2019 under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) (EEA, 2021).

Methodology references

 

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

The use of gap filling for countries that have not reported emissions for 1 or more years can potentially lead to artificial trends but is considered unavoidable for obtaining a comprehensive and comparable set of emissions data for European countries for policy analysis purposes.

Data sets uncertainty

The certainty of the emissions data for Pb 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, to which this indicator relates, 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 (EU, 2008a) 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 relatively 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, 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 info@eea.europa.eu

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