The European Union (EU) has seen its hopes dashed that safe substitute materials would be developed to allow the phasing out of potentially hazardous metals in automotive materials and parts.

Its Council of Ministers yesterday approved a series of exemptions from the EU’s year 2000 end of life vehicles directive that banned – in principle – the use of lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium in auto manufacturing.

At that time, the lack of viable alternative materials meant automakers were given temporary exemptions from the law allowing the use of these materials. But now, 11 years on, the EU has admitted those safe alternatives are still not here.

And, furthermore, there is no real prospect of that happening soon. An amendment to the law accepted by the council yesterday said: “Certain materials and components containing lead, mercury, cadmium or hexavalent chromium should continue to be exempted from the prohibition set out in [the directive] without an expiry date, since the use of such substances in [certain] materials and components…is still technically or scientifically unavoidable.”

A specific exemption approved by ministers was the “use of lead in automotive thermoelectric materials in applications reducing CO2 emissions by recuperation of exhaust heat” – also “currently technically and scientifically unavoidable.”

There is also an exemption for repairs. The council accepted that new safer materials in some instances were not suitable for old spare parts. They “cannot fit into the vehicle systems originally manufactured with parts containing heavy metals and these vehicles cannot be repaired,” it noted – allowing another exemption from the directive.