Risk management strategy for products containing mercury: chapter 1


Issue

The Government of Canada's Chemicals Management Plan makes Canada a global leader in the safe management of chemical substances and products. While many chemicals are safe, some are known toxics and yet are still used in products. Mercury is an example of a well-known, persistent, bioaccumulative neurotoxin that is still used in some everyday products, such as thermometers and compact fluorescent lights, and some imported batteries. The proposed Risk Management Strategy for Mercury-containing Products is another component of the Government of Canada Chemicals Management Plan. This strategy lays out a suite of tools that will allow the Government of Canada to prohibit or limit mercury use in products, control imports or exports where necessary, and set labelling requirements and controls on product disposal. It demonstrates the Government of Canada's commitment to take immediate action to minimize risk and safely manage substances that are harmful to human health or the environment.

Mercury is a toxic and persistent metal with significant adverse effects on the environment and human health. Mercury is on the List of Toxic Substances in Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999).

Mercury exhibits characteristics of a metal and is liquid at room temperature. Because mercury is a good conductor of electricity and reacts predictably to temperature and pressure changes, it can be used in a variety of different products. Common products that may contain mercury include fluorescent lamps, thermostats, temperature and pressure measuring devices, dental amalgam and electrical switches and relays.

Mercury from products can enter the environment and become part of the global mercury cycle. It can escape when products are broken or when products are disposed at the end of their useful life. Once in the atmosphere mercury can remain airborne for long periods of time and be deposited around the world.

Mercury in the environment can transform, through biological activity, into a highly toxic organic substance called methylmercury. Methylmercury builds up in living organisms through their surrounding environments and is concentrated as it transfers up the food chain. Almost all mercury compounds are toxic and can be harmful at very low levels in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Human exposure to mercury can cause brain, nerve, kidney, and lung damage and in extreme cases coma or death. Children exposed to mercury while in the womb can experience developmental difficulties.1

While instruments are in place or in development to address several sources in Canada, the use of mercury in products continues and has left a legacy of mercury in landfills, end-of-life automobiles, and homes. In 2003 approximately 10 tonnes of mercury was used in products imported and manufactured in Canada. The Risk Management Strategy (RMS) outlines the risk management objectives, instruments and approaches to reduce the risks associated with consumer products containing mercury. An initial stakeholder consultation approach is also proposed.

1 Health Canada - Mercury and Human Health Fact Sheet, September 2004

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