Heavy metal emissions in Europe

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 2020, emissions have continued to decline, with lead emissions decreasing by 49%, mercury emissions by 51% and cadmium emissions by 39% across the EU-27 Member States. In 2020, Germany, Italy and Poland contributed most to heavy metal emissions in the EU.

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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. 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). Releases of Hg are also controlled by the United Nations Environment Programme Minamata Convention.

Improvements in abatement technologies and targeted legislation — for instance the Large Combustion Plant Directive, the Industrial Emissions Directive and the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Regulation— 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. 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. 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 2020, emissions of Cd, Hg and Pb declined in the EU-27 Member States by 39%, 51% and 49%, respectively. The industrial processes and product use sector still accounts for the majority of Cd, Hg and Pb emissions (53.8%, 43.9% and 59.4%, respectively), but emissions from this sector have declined since 2005, with both Hg and Pb emissions declining by around 40%. The industrial processes and product use sector grouping refers to emissions from industrial sources other than those arising from fuel combustion within the industrial sector. 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.

Between 2005 and 2020, 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 relatively small increases in absolute emissions from low baseline levels, for instance in the cases of Austria, Denmark and Malta.

In 2020, 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. Four member states emissions of Cd have increased with the highest case in Malta (15%) while emissions of Hg in Estonia increased by 10% compared to 2005 levels.

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