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Environmental pressures of heavy metal releases from Europe's industry

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) ensures public access to information on pollutant releases to the environment from Europe’s largest facilities. Updated E-PRTR data have recently been published by the EEA, including information on pollutant releases to the environment from some 33 000 facilities in Europe for the period 2007-2016. This briefing, based on updated E-PRTR data for 2016, presents information on heavy metal releases to air and water. It applies an eco-toxicity approach (USEtox model) to illustrate spatially the combined environmental pressures on Europe’s environment caused by releases of the selected pollutants.

  • Heavy metal pollutants can cause harmful effects in plants, animals and humans.
  • Industrial releases of heavy metals in Europe to air tend to originate from a small number of facilities, with metal processing and the burning of fuel for energy supply responsible for the greatest environmental pressures.
  • Of the 978 facilities releasing heavy metals to air in 2016, just 18 were responsible for more than half of the associated environmental pressure, as estimated using the aggregated eco-toxicity approach. 
  • The environmental pressure exerted by heavy metals because of releases to air was 39 % lower in 2016 than in 2010.
  • Releases to water from copper mining are among the largest sources of environmental pressure exerted by heavy metals in Europe.
  • Pressure caused by releases to water was 34 % lower in 2016 than in 2010.

This briefing focuses on reported releases to air and water of the following heavy metals: arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni) and zinc (Zn). Heavy metals are released by a range of industrial and other sources, but may also occur naturally in the environment. They can cause harmful effects in plants, animals and humans as a result of long-term or frequent exposure to high concentrations in air, water or soil. Such effects can range from the disruption of nutrient cycling in plants to effects on growth and reproduction in plants, animals and humans (see E-PRTR pollutant descriptions for more information). The EEA indicator Heavy metal emissions provides additional insights on emissions to air from Europe’s industrial facilities.

What is Europe doing to reduce releases of heavy metals?

Europe is actively addressing the issue of heavy metal releases to the environment. The Industrial Emission Directive (2010/75/EU or IED) is the EU’s main legislation on environmental pollution — including heavy metals — from industrial and other large point source activities. The directive entered into force in early 2011 and adopts an integrated view by considering emissions to all media (air, water and land) as well as waste generated and energy efficiency.

The EU is also party to the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution 1998 Protocol on Heavy Metals, which targets three particularly harmful substances: Cd, Hg and Pb. More recently, the Minamata Convention on Mercury — a global, legally binding treaty — was agreed by governments in January 2013 and formally adopted as international law on 10 October 2013. In response, the EU has recently put in place the Mercury Regulation (2017/852/EU).

The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) establishes a requirement to achieve good ecological and chemical status in European waters. This includes targets for the reduction of heavy metal concentrations.


Read the full text briefing, with maps and graphics