By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Environment campaigners are calling for curbs on mercury emissions from human cremations as part of pollution controls that EU authorities will debate this month.
Increased cremation as shortage of land makes burial expensive has coincided with a rise in emissions of the toxic metal from fillings in teeth. An average cremation releases 2 to 4 grams of mercury, data compiled by U.S. researchers shows.
Mercury is associated with mental development problems. After entering the air and then falling in rain it becomes concentrated in fish that, if eaten during pregnancy, can cause harm to unborn children.
Some 200,000 babies are born in the European Union annually with mercury levels harmful to their development, public health researchers have found.
The European Environment Bureau (EEB), which is coordinating non-governmental organizations in Brussels in an increasingly polarized debate on air quality, says crematoria should be included in new standards on incinerating waste.
One option would be removing teeth from corpses before cremation, although the campaigners acknowledge that may raise ethical issues.
"What matters is to deal with protecting the living environment from extremely hazardous pollutants," Christian Schaible, a senior EEB policy official, said.
Of the 28 EU states, so far only Germany has a mercury emissions limit, although the EU has regulated large coal power plants - the biggest source of mercury pollution. Sweden and Denmark have banned mercury in dental fillings.
Draft EU air quality legislation from 2013 included national ceilings for pollutants and emissions from medium-sized combustion plants (MCPs), theoretically including crematoria.
The new European Commission, the EU executive, last year proposed abandoning national targets and debate on MCPs, at the request of member states, excludes crematoria.
Keen to counter Euroscepticism, particularly in Britain, which has objected to national targets on several issues, the Commission says it is preventing over-regulation.
The EEB will take part in debate on the waste issue with representatives of the Commission, EU nations and industry between Jan. 19 and 22.
Separately, the European Parliament votes on Thursday on an objection to the Commission's plan to scrap some environmental proposals, including on waste and air quality.
Even before the Commission's new plan, the NGOs say the national ceilings were inadequate and did not deal with mercury.
Data from the Cremation Society of Great Britain show that in Europe in 2012, the highest rate of cremations was in non-EU Switzerland, at 85 percent, followed by Denmark with 77 percent and Britain with 73 percent.
(editing by John Stonestreet)