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Volume 694: debated on Monday 16 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many people have suffered harm as a result of contact with mercury barometers.

My Lords, since 2005, the chemical incidents surveillance system has reported four domestic incidents involving mercury spills from barometers. Five people were confirmed as having been exposed, of whom one exhibited symptoms. However, mercury released from barometers persists in the environment and, as such, can indirectly lead to risks to human health, such as children’s mental development. The proposed restrictions on the sale of new mercury instruments are a proportionate response to those concerns.

My Lords, I am amazed that the Minister describes it as a proportionate response, given that new mercury barometers consume some 78 pounds of mercury, that the Government still intend that mercury can be used in dentistry for filling purposes and that, according to an Answer from the Minister, 0.8 tonnes of mercury go into the atmosphere as a result of cremations. Surely the Minister must recognise that this is a disproportionate response, which will destroy businesses making mercury barometers? Would he not like to reconsider the Government’s position?

No, my Lords, certainly not. Given the way in which the noble Lord asked that question, one would assume that nothing is being done about the two examples that he gave. That is not the case. For example, there are restrictions and proposals to reduce the amount of mercury in dental fillings, and there are proposals to restrict mercury emissions from new crematoria and to restrict by 50 per cent mercury emissions from existing crematoria. In the past three decades, UK emissions of mercury have declined from 63 tonnes to 7.6 tonnes, a reduction of 89 per cent, which is consistent with both the European and the global effort to reduce the use of mercury where there are viable alternatives.

My Lords, I declare an interest. Is the Minister aware that mercury has been used throughout the clock-making and repairing businesses for centuries in connection with compensated pendulums? Will the European legislation affecting barometers also affect clock-making and repairing businesses where there is particular concern, as they have received no guidance on this matter from his department? Is he also aware that, unlike compact fluorescent light bulbs or CFLs, which contain mercury and cannot be disposed of as household waste, the mercury in a barometer or a pendulum bob is retained on the premises in the manufacturing and repairing businesses?

My Lords, I do not have a briefing on clock makers, and this is the first time in the past few months since this issue arose that it has been raised. I will take advice and contact the noble Lord. He also made a reference to the low energy light bulb. The average mercury barometer contains between 100 and 600 grammes of mercury. That is 25,000 to 150,000 times more than is contained in an energy saving light bulb. I am not arguing that; they will have a limited life in due course anyway, and there will be a proper way of disposing of them.

No one should think that it does not matter; the mercury is persistent. It will remain in the atmosphere and it will vaporise. That is why in half the lakes in Sweden—that is 50,000 lakes—by and large the fish are contaminated, because the mercury will drift to the north part of the planet.

My Lords, I am one of the millions of people walking around with a mouthful of amalgam fillings, and I am a dentist who worked with amalgam in the days when we handled mercury with our bare hands, not with rubber gloves, as people do now. Does the Minister not think that there is too much stress on this issue? As I understand it, although the number of fillings has reduced, the amount of mercury used in amalgam fillings has not changed.

My Lords, as I said, the attempt world-wide is to reduce and avoid the use of mercury where possible. It is not being mined any more, as far as I know. There are plenty of stocks, because of recycling. But the fact is that barometers in people’s homes are quite safe, unless, of course, there is an accident.

My Lords, no one is arguing that—they are quite safe. The industry has a two-year derogation. The use of scientific instruments, where mercury is vital because there is no alternative, will continue. The use of special switches on lifeboats, in which only mercury proved to be 100 per cent effective, will, as far as I am aware, continue. The restrictions will apply where there is a viable alternative—and there is a more accurate and viable alternative for barometers.

My Lords, I understand from previous answers that small firms will be able to carry on working on antique barometers. Given that regulations are slipped in some years ahead—certainly without much notice—as is often the case with Governments, can the Minister give an assurance that there will be no such regulations to stop small firms carrying on doing this work indefinitely? As the work is designated as allegedly dangerous, can I have an assurance that there will be no impact on small firms’ insurance premiums and the way that they conduct their business under the health and safety regulations?

My Lords, the effect on its insurance for any company using a chemical is a matter for that company and the insurance company. It has nothing to do with this regulation. This regulation does not make mercury less unsafe—it is unsafe anyway. The fact of the matter is that the European Parliament agreed by two fairly substantial votes at its plenary session on 9 and 12 July to what the Commission wanted anyway and adopted the common position. In due course, that will be the case. We have a two-year derogation for the antique barometer trade, in which adjustments can be made. Repair work on antique barometers will continue—there is a derogation in that respect. Other instruments, including aneroid barometers made by some manufacturers, are more accurate and can be just as important a furniture item. As far as we know, there are very few barometer manufacturers in Europe—there are only three small firms in this country and one in France.

My Lords, given that we have been talking about mercury in the mouth, would it be worth emphasising that it is quite safe to eat mercury? If, for instance, a barometer is broken in the mouth, there is no real danger from mercury poisoning. Of course, a rectal thermometer is dangerous, if broken.

My Lords, all the advice that I have received is that mercury is a highly toxic substance. It is persistent, and we do not want any new sources put into circulation. The four incidents to which I referred involved the need for furniture to be destroyed and hospitalisation. The whole point is that mercury is an unsafe chemical, but, where there is no exposure, there is no problem. Fire brigades support this view, because of the vaporisation of mercury in fires. This is a major safety issue. I am not arguing that this is the be-all and end-all. No one could do that, given the tonnes of mercury used in the European Union and the relatively small amount used in barometers.