Executive Summary

Mercury is a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Mercury takes many forms and moves from one place to another, through air, water and soil. As a gas, mercury can stay in the air for months and can travel far from where it was first emitted before being deposited to land and water. Mercury is released to the environment from natural sources such as volcanic activity, forest fires and erosion as well as from human activities. Natural sources account for roughly 60% of the mercury deposited in Canada each year. Industrial and other human activities account for the remaining 40% of annual deposits. The most dangerous form of mercury is called methylmercury, which can cause serious problems for animals and humans. Methylmercury is highly toxic and accumulates in the tissues of living organisms. As a result, animals that eat other animals have more mercury in their bodies. Mercury in humans comes mostly from eating food, especially fish and sea mammals.

Over many years, the Government of Canada has worked to protect Canadians and their environment from the risks of mercury by minimizing, and where feasible, eliminating mercury emissions and releases. This report shows the progress made since 2007 in achieving this objective. It provides the status of emissions and releases of mercury from human activities, outlines trends in environmental monitoring data and human biomonitoring data, and discusses the different actions taken by the Government of Canada to manage the risks of mercury and how well they have performed overall. The report offers the following conclusions:

  1. Progress has been made to reduce mercury levels in the environment. From 2007-2017, mercury emissions to air from human activities in Canada were reduced by 61% and mercury releases to water declined by 66%.  Mercury levels in air and animals have mostly declined or are stable in most areas in Canada. Notable exceptions are the Arctic and areas of western Canada where mercury levels were found to be increasing in the air at some sites and in some animals.
  2. Canadians’ exposure to mercury has been reduced. Levels of mercury in the general Canadian population are low and stable, although there is some variance within First Nations populations. Northern Inuit populations have higher levels of mercury but their levels have been decreasing over time possibly due to a decrease in consumption of certain country foods that contain mercury. Regarding other potential exposure sources, previous management actions have been taken for paints, toys, cosmetics, natural health products, drinking water and pesticides.
  3. Risk management measures have contributed to the overall objectives of protecting Canadians and their environment from mercury. An analysis of the performance of the Canada-wide Standards for Mercury Emissions from Coal-fired Electric Power Generation Plants and for the Pollution Prevention Notices for mercury switches and dental amalgam waste showed that the risk management objectives were met.  New risk management measures put in place include: the Products Containing Mercury Regulations; the Reduction of Carbon Dioxide from Coal-Fired Generation of Electricity Regulations; Export of Substances on the Export Control List Regulations; National Strategy for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Disposal of Lamps Containing Mercury Act; and the Code of Practice for the Environmentally Sound Management of End-of-life Lamps Containing Mercury.
  4. As a Party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, Canada has also worked actively to lower the amount of mercury that enters the Canadian environment from human activities in other countries. The majority of mercury from human activities that is deposited in Canada comes from emissions in other countries. Because of this, the Government of Canada has been actively working with its international partners to develop and implement the Minamata Convention on Mercury which requires countries that are Parties to the Convention to reduce and control mercury throughout its lifecycle.
  5. Additional risk management actions and ongoing performance measurement and monitoring activities are essential to further protect Canadians and their environment from the harmful effects of mercury.  As the risks of mercury shift away from industrial emissions and releases, new risk management actions will be needed. Performance measurement is a useful tool for evaluating the success of risk management actions and identifying areas where additional actions may be needed. Ongoing monitoring is particularly important since changes in emissions and releases and ecosystems shifts are altering trends of mercury levels in the environment.

Based on the results in this report, the Government of Canada will focus its efforts in four main areas: monitoring mercury levels in humans and the environment, managing risks associated with mercury, in particular related to the responsible management of waste associated with the disposal of products containing mercury, communicating with the public, and engaging internationally.

Page details

Date modified: