Oceana calls for immediate halt of mercury use by chlor-alkali plants to reduce hazards to consumers and ecosystems from contamination of fish

The Spanish Government hid report of dangerous mercury contamination in seafood from public, until Oceana won years long court case to unveil data.

Press Release Date: July 1, 2011

Location: Madrid


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According to IPPC Directive, mercury use should have been phased out by 2007

Oceana calls for chlorine plants using mercury cells, the main source of mercury contamination in the seas and pollution of fish species, to immediately adapt to Best Available Technologies (BATs), such as asbestos-free diaphragm cells and membrane cells. This call comes following the revelation of a report, which was kept confidential by the Spanish Government, showing above legal levels of mercury in several fish species sold on the market. The international conservation organization was able to access this document after requesting the information in 2007 and the ensuing legal battle.

The use of mercury is obsolete and should have been eliminated in accordance with the Industrial Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, which required the application of BATs, providing a period of 11 years to adapt existing facilities. The adaptation period ended in October 2007, however, in March 2011, the EU Council invited the industry to delay the conversion until 2020.

“As an immediate step, Spanish retail outlets must, in accordance with the Aarhus Convention, offer consumption recommendations particularly to the most vulnerable consumers, such as pregnant women and children under the age of three, making note of those species which the highest mercury levels, including blue sharks, swordfish and mako,” said Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana Europe. “However, the key long-term solution is to adapt all chlor-alkali plants to mercury-free technologies, which have existed for years and which, according to European law, should have been implemented since 2007.”

Mercury from industrial sources enters the marine food chain where it becomes concentrated mainly in predators located at the top of it, such as shark and swordfish. When consumed, it affects the neurological system and can cause damaging health effects, such as lack of coordination, tremors, irritability, memory loss, blurred vision, headaches and depression. It is therefore necessary to limit the consumption of those species which contain the highest levels of bioaccumulation.

In Spain, the Food Safety Agency recently provided recommendations, following a long legal process carried out by Oceana. In 2007, the international marine conservation organization requested, and was denied, a 2003 report on levels of arsenic and metals in fish and shellfish of commercial interest, by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (Estudio de Arsénico y Metales Pesados en Pescados y Mariscos de Interés Comercial). In December 2009, the Spanish High Court ruled in favor of Oceana and against the Ministry of Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs, which had been hiding the report. However, it delayed delivery of the full report until March 2011. Shortly thereafter, on April 14, the Carlos III Health Institute released a study that showed high levels of mercury in the blood of Spanish citizens, higher than in other countries.

In 2009, Oceana reported Spain to the European Commission for breach of European Union law referring to the IPPC Directive after the voluntary agreements it signed with the Spanish autonomous regions for the continued use of mercury cells.

Meanwhile, Oceana has initiated litigation against the regional governments of Andalusia, Catalonia and Galicia, with regards to some of the following plants in Spain, which continue to use this polluting technology:

• Andalusia: Aragonesas Industrias y Energía, S.A (Palos de la Frontera, Huelva).

• Aragon: Aragonesas Industrias y Energía, S.A. (Sabiñánigo, Huesca), y Química del Cinca S.A. (Monzón, Huesca).
• Cantabria: Solvay Chemicals, S.L. (Torrelavega)

• Catalonia: Aragonesas Industrias y Energía, S. A.(Vila-Seca, Tarragona); Ercros Industrial, S. A. (Flix, Tarragona), e Hispavic Ibérica, S. L (Martorell, Barcelona)

• Galicia: Electroquímica y Electroquímica del Noroeste, S.A. (Lourizán, Pontevedra)

Learn more: Mercury. Overview