Preventing environmental exposure to mercury through an international treaty could save the European Union up to €9bn per year by protecting children's brain development, according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Health
today. The most damaging aspect of human exposure to mercury occurs when pregnant woman inadvertently pass the poison on to the brains of their unborn babies, as they develop in the womb.
Exposure to mercury is known to come mainly through eating large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish, which have themselves been poisoned as a result of industrial waste entering the sea and rivers. Professor Philippe Grandjean, one of the study's authors, explained how the cost savings estimate was developed. "If we convert the effects of methylmercury or MeHg on developing brains into IQ points, then the benefits of controlling MeHg pollution equates to 700,000 points per year and monetary benefits of €8,000m to €9,000m per year for the whole of the EU," he said.
Pre-natal exposure was said to be of particular concern because smaller amounts of methylmercury could cause irreversible health effects in a developing brain, compared with the effect on an adult. The study's calculations were based on data gathered from an EU biomonitoring project. Levels of mercury found in hair samples taken in 17 European countries showed one third to be above the level deemed to be safe in the most recent scientific studies. This meant that 1.8 million of the 5.4 million babies born in European countries each year were affected by unsafe maternal mercury levels – according to the report.
"Not every child in Europe is at equal risk," the report stated. "Mercury levels are lowest in Eastern Europe and highest in Southern Europe. In Spain, 88 per cent of samples tested were found to be above the safe level, a country in which fish consumption is particularly high. If nothing is done, the problem is likely to worsen significantly."
Putting forward the idea of a global treaty, executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance - or HEAL - campaign group Genon Jensen said: "These disturbing findings make a strong, legally binding treaty to control mercury pollution absolutely imperative. We now have research that shows the extent of harmful exposures in Europe and the economic benefits to the tune of billions of euros each year, which would be derived from preventing these exposures.
"Europeans – and especially women – should be made immediately aware of the risks of exposure for their babies. But equally, the EU must do its utmost to achieve a strong global treaty if mercury pollution is to be properly controlled. There may not be a safe level for fetal exposure to mercury. In 2006, we highlighted these uncertainties as well as our concerns that American and EU authorities did not agree on what represents a safe level of exposure to mercury. As more research results have become available, the levels considered safe are steadily falling."
An international treaty is to be debated by the United Nations Environment Programme, in Geneva, on January 13. And HEAL is calling for a legally binding agreement, national implementation plans and specific health protection measures to enhance awareness regarding the alleged adverse ill-health effects of mercury exposure.