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Environment

Why is environmental role model Germany among the largest mercury polluters in Europe?

The heavy metal released from coal-burning is a health risk, and environmentalists are up in arms about Germany's high levels - but the government says Germany compares well to other countries.

Germany: land of recycling, renewable energy - and high mercury emissions? It sounds like a paradox, but it's the cold, hard truth. No other country in Europe except for Poland and Greece emits more mercury than Germany.

The culprits are the country's 53 coal-fired power plants. They are responsible for 70 percent of the emissions, according to a study by the Institute for Ecology and Politics (Ökopol) commissioned by the Green Party fraction represented in the German Parliament.

The study says that coal-fired power plants, which are still responsible for 40 percent of Germany's electricity supply, emit more than 7 tons of mercury each year. The 16 lignite or brown coal plants in Germany are especially bad offenders.

Serious health risks

Mercury is poisonous for living beings and can cause severe health damage. Once in the atmosphere, mercury makes its way into waterways and the sea, creating a risk for marine animals.

Thunfisch Fisch Wasser Ozean Meer

Species higher on the food chain, like tuna, also suffer from mercury poisoning

Humans take it in mostly by eating fish. Most vulnerable are pregnant women, babies and young children.

Once in the human body, mercury can cause nerve damage and impede brain development in babies. It could also cause cancer.

"Mercury has even been linked to Alzheimer's," Manfred Santen, toxics campaigner with Greenpeace Germany, told DW.

And emissions of the harmful metal emitted by power plants could be reduced. "85 percent of mercury emissions could have been prevented using special techniques," Christian Tebert, the author of the Ökopol study, wrote.

But that, of course, would cost money and mean interfering with the coal industry, which maintains a powerful lobby in Germany, a country built on successful industry.

Stricter rules in the future

Mercury in a petri dish. (Photo: picture alliance/WILDLIFE/D. Harms)

Liquid mercury used to be found in clinical thermometers

Right now, the legal limit for mercury emissions from any power plant in Germany is 30 micrograms per cubic meter per day. That's not strong enough, says Santen.

But this 30 microgram limit actually a lot stronger than what many other countries have, a spokesman for Germany's environment ministry told DW.

He emphasized that the mere existence of legal limits is a good thing. Many other countries in Europe don't even record their mercury emissions, the spokesman said. He added that Germany's current emissions are not too high. And they'll lower come 2019, because Germany will be introducing stricter limits.

The new rule would limit the per-day average over one year to 10 micrograms per cubic meter per plant.

The EU is discussing even tighter limits on mercury emissions.

"Limits will be considerably stricter within EU law," according to the environment ministry spokesman, who preferred to remain unnamed.

Failure not a benchmark

Manfred Santen. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Santen: Doing better than countries with lower mercury limits is nothing to be proud of

But Environmental groups like Greenpeace are focusing on the present, saying mercury emissions are too high now.

"It's scandalous," Santen said. "We've always been proud of being at the forefront of clean technology and then suddenly, it turns out we're not doing so well at all because we're burning so much lignite."

Germany's use of brown or soft coal has been a #link:18862708:bone of contention, both within the country and internationally. Lignite is the dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of air pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

Santen rejects the argument that other countries having looser or no limits on mercury emissions makes Germany's high emissions acceptable: "We shouldn't compare ourselves to that."

He says that the political will to make significant changes is lacking.

Surprising valedictorian

For a positive example, one can look to the US, a country that doesn't have a strong international reputation for environmental progress. Even with the stricter rules planned for 2019, Germany's limits would still be more than double those in the US.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks says that comparisons like that will eventually become obsolete.

"If we want to stick to our long-term climate goals, we'll need to stop using coal power eventually," Hendricks told German daily "Die Welt."

"That will eliminate a big mercury emitter."

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