STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Tapping a barometer to check the weather may become a thing of the past after the European Parliament on Tuesday adopted new rules to scrap the use of mercury and protect the environment.
The European Union assembly agreed to ban the sale of non-electrical instruments containing the toxic heavy metal, such as thermometers for taking people's temperatures at home.
The ban, already endorsed by EU states, will apply to new devices only. Existing instruments or antiques can still be repaired or bought and sold second-hand.
Measuring devices containing mercury may be imported if they are more than 50 years old and therefore classified as antiques. Mercury, liquid at room temperature and pressure, has been used in instruments for hundreds of years.
There are exemptions for the healthcare sector.
An earlier attempt to exempt barometer makers was dropped after opposition in some EU states. Manufacturers will be given a two-year grace period.
The measure is part of a wider EU strategy to crack down on the use of mercury. Around 80 to 90 percent of all mercury is used in medical and other thermometers for household use.
EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said the rules will come into force soon and reduce the bloc's mercury emissions by 33 tonnes a year.
Thermometers alone account for 25 to 30 tonnes, for which there are now non-mercury alternatives, he said.
Philip Collins of Barometer World in Devon, England, said the measure would harm the environment.
"It's chiefly barometer makers who are in a position to advise customers about handling mercury. In the short and medium term it will produce more indiscriminate dumping of mercury barometers," said Collins, who is also secretary general of the British Barometer Makers Association.
British centre-right lawmaker Martin Callanan said appropriate safety warnings could have allowed barometer production to continue.
"This ban brings to an end the tradition of barometer making which was begun in the mid 1600s when mercury barometers were first introduced," Callanan said.
There are about 8 barometer makers in Europe, including three in Britain, one in Belgium and France, and two in the Netherlands, Collins said.
"Although repairs are not directly threatened, some makers won't survive," Collins said, adding the reform will trim turnover but not threaten his business.
The European Commission will review safer alternatives for mercury-containing instruments for taking blood pressure.