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New research results suggest that mercury hotspots in the northeastern US are home made


The studies are the result of a three-year effort by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation (HBRF) and are the cover story of the January issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal BioScience. The HBRF team of 11 scientists used an extensive database of more than 7,300 samples to quantify mercury levels in fish, loons and other wildlife from New York to Nova Scotia. "Statewide fish advisories are a blunt tool that are useful, but don’t demonstrate just how severely polluted some waters really are," said Dr. David Evers, Executive Director of the BioDiversity Research Institute. "We found fish with mercury levels that were more than 10 times higher than the EPA human health criterion. People need to know where these highly polluted lakes exist so that they can take appropriate precautions when choosing where to fish and whether or not to consume that fish," said Evers.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) commented on the national importance of this research as she announced that she is introducing new legislation to reduce mercury pollution. "I have long-argued that EPA used faulty science in order to justify an insufficient mercury rule, and these studies prove it," said Senator Collins. "EPA misrepresented the mercury problem based on computer data which had not been peer-reviewed, and then put out a rule which does not account for mercury hotspots and which places children and pregnant women at risk.

"With these studies, David Evers has shown the importance of real, on-the- ground mercury measurements, instead of relying solely on the computer model used by EPA to justify its misguided rule. I am introducing legislation to reduce mercury emissions by 90% and to create a nationwide mercury monitoring network. Congress should act on this issue expeditiously."

The HBRF team linked the biological mercury hotspots to sources of mercury pollution and found that mercury emissions to the air are the leading cause. According to Dr. Charles Driscoll, a first author of one of the studies and the University Professor of Environmental Systems Engineering at Syracuse University, "Mercury emissions to the air cause biological mercury hotspots in watersheds sensitized by decades of acid rain, reservoirs manipulated for power production and other purposes, and locations near large emissions sources, such as coal-fired power plants." The authors were surprised to find that some remote areas, such as the Adirondacks Mountains of New York, are so sensitive that even a moderate amount of airborne mercury pollution can produce extremely high mercury levels in fish and wildlife.

The studies also present a new analysis showing that mercury deposition is 10 to 20 times higher than pre-industrial conditions, and four to five times higher than previously estimated by EPA near a coal plant in the vicinity of a biological mercury hotspot spanning southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts — calling into question EPA methods and the appropriateness of the cap-and-trade policy in the EPA Clean Air Mercury Rule. "Our modeling results support a growing body of evidence that a significant fraction of the mercury emitted from coal-fired power plants in the U.S. is deposited in the area surrounding the plants," said Dr. Thomas Holsen, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Clarkson University and co-author of the studies.

The concern over local impacts has prompted several states to reject mercury trading and adopt more stringent emissions standards for coal-fired power plants in their EPA-mandated plans and prompted the writing of new draft federal legislation aimed at documenting and tracking mercury pollution and hotspots.

The good news is that the HBRF team also determined that mercury levels in fish and wildlife can decline relatively quickly in response to decreased airborne mercury emissions within the region — a new finding for the Northeast.

"There is still a lot that we don’t understand about mercury, but it is clear that biological mercury hotspots occur and that mercury emissions from sources in the U.S., as opposed to China and other countries overseas, are the leading cause. Mercury emissions will have to be reduced substantially from current levels if we are to see recovery in sensitive watersheds in the Northeast," said Dr. Driscoll.

The Original studies:

 Charles T. Driscoll, Young-Ji Han, Celia Y. Chen, David C. Evers, Kathleen Fallon Lambert, Thomas M. Holsen, Neil Kamman, Ronald K. Munson, Mercury Contamination in Forest and Freshwater Ecosystems in the Northeastern United States, BioScience, 57/1 (2007) 17-28. DOI: 10.1641/B570106

 David C. Evers, Young-Ji Han, Charles T. Driscoll, Neil C. Kamman, M.W. Goodale, K.F. Lambert, T. Holsen, C.Y. Chen, T.A. Clair, T. Butler, Biological Mercury Hotspots in the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada, BioScience, 57/1 (2007) 29-43. DOI: 10.1641/B570107

 Related information:

HBRF, February 2007: MERCURY MATTERS: Linking Mercury Science with Public Policy in the Northeastern United States
US EPA: Clean Air Interstate Rule

US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. II - An Inventory of Anthropogenic Mercury Emissions in the United States
US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. III - Fate and Transport of Mercury in the Environment
US EPA - Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. IV - An Assessment of Exposure to Mercury in the United States
US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. V - Health Effects of Mercury and Mercury Compounds
US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. VI - An Ecological Assessment for Anthropogenic Mercury Emissions in the United States
 US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress . Vol. VII - Characterization of Human Health and Wildlife Risks from Mercury Exposure in the United States
US EPA: Mercury Study Report to Congress - Vol. 8 - An Evaluation of Mercury Control Technology and Costs

Related EVISA News (newest first):

February 11, 2009: Mercury in Fish is a Global Health Concern
November 23rd, 2004: Is the methylmercury paradox real ?
April 27th, 2004: FDA/EPA recommends pregnant women to restrict their fish consumption because of methylmercury content

last time modified: March 9, 2024


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