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Man is significantly contaminating oceans with mercury


Mercury is a toxic trace metal, creating a global health risk for humans and animals amplified by its bioaccumulation in organisms and its biomagnification along the food chain. Mercury emissions to the environment have increased significantly as a result of anthropogenic activities such as mining and fossil fuel combustion (see the graph below). Model calculations have estimated that anthropogenic emission of Mercury has increased the oceanmercury inventory by 36-1313 million moles since the 1500s.  Not only are such estimations orders of magnitude apart but also largely untested owing to a lack of historical data and natural archives for retrospective analysis.

Graph showing the anthropogenic mercury emission sources

The new study:

An international team of researchers now found there’s more mercury from human sources – mostly burning fossil fuels and mining for gold – than scientists had thought.

The study assessed inorganic mercury, which is the form mainly emitted both by natural and anthropogenic activities and gets converted in the oceans into the toxic methylmercury found in seafood.  Researchers collected thousands of water samples during eight research cruises to the North and South Atlantic and Pacific oceans between 2006 and 2011. To determine how mercury levels had changed over time, they compared samples of seawater from depths down to 5 kilometres with water closer to the surface, which had been more recently exposed to mercury pollution from land and air. The study is published this month in the journal Nature.

“Everywhere on the planet is contaminated with mercury to some extent,” said Carl Lamborg of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. His study found that mercury concentration in ocean water varied by depth, generally higher at the surface and mid-level depths than in deep water. But in the North Atlantic, high concentrations reached even deeper than 1000 meters.

The researcher estimate the total amount of anthropogenic mercury present in the global ocean to be 290 ± 80 million moles, with almost two-thirds residing in water shallower than a thousand metres. In general, mercury levels between the surface and 100 m deep were more than triple pre-industrial times levels, Lamborg said. Between 100 and 1000 m deep, they were about 150 percent greater than the levels from more than a century ago. But they were only about 10 percent higher at depths greater than 1000 m, except for the North Atlantic.

The study is important and will hopefully help scientists eventually understand the processes and the depths at which inorganic mercury species are converted into toxic methyl mercury and subsequently bioaccumulate in marine food webs.

The cited study:

Carl H. Lamborg, Chad R. Hammerschmidt,    Katlin L. Bowman, Gretchen J. Swarr, Kathleen M. Munson, Daniel C. Ohnemus, Phoebe J. Lam, Lars-Eric Heimbürger, Micha J. A. Rijkenberg, Mak A. Saito, A global ocean inventory of anthropogenic mercury based on water column measurements, Nature, 512 (2014) 65–68. doi:10.1038/nature13563

Related studies:

K.L. Bowman, C.R. Hammerschmidt, C.H. Lamborg, G.J. Swarr, Mercury in the North Atlantic Ocean: the U.S. GEOTRACES zonal and meridional sections, Deep Sea Res. II (in the press) doi: 10.1016/J.dsr2.2014.07.004

Jeffrey S. Gaffney, Nancy A. Marley, In-depth review of atmospheric mercury: sources, transformations, and potential sinks, Energy Emission Control Technol., 2014/2 (2014) 1-21. doi: 10.2147/EECT.S37038

C.R. Hammerschmidt, K.L. Bowman, Vertical methylmercury distribution in the subtropical North Pacific, Mar. Chem., 132–133 (2012) 77–82. doi:  10.1016/j.marchem.2012.02.005

R.P. Mason, A.L. Choi, W.F. Fitzgerald, C.R. Hammerschmidt, C.H. Lamborg, A.L. Soerensen, E.M. Sunderland, Mercury biogeochemical cycling in the ocean and policy implications, Environ. Res., 119 (2012) 101–117. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2012.03.013

D. Cossa, L.-E. Heimbürger, D. Lannuzel, S.R. Rintoul, E.C.V. Butler, A.R. Bowie, B. Averty, R.J. Watson, Mercury in the Southern Ocean, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 75 (2011) 4037–4052. doi: 10.1016/j.gca.2011.05.001

D.G. Streets, M.K. Devane, Z.F. Lu, T.C. Bond, E.M. Sunderland, D.J. Jacob, All-time releases of mercury to the atmosphere from human activities, Environ. Sci. Technol., 45 (2011) 10485–10491. doi: 10.1021/es202765m

S. Strode, L. Jaegle, S. Emerson, Vertical transport of anthropogenic mercury in the ocean, Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles, 24 (2010) GB4014. doi: 10.1029/2009GB003728

E.G. Pacyna, J.M. Pacyna, K. Sundseth, K. Kindbom, S. Wilson, F. Steenhuisen, P. Maxson, Global emission of mercury to the atmosphere from anthropogenic sources in 2005 and projections to 2020, Atmos. Environ., 44 (2010) 2487–2499. doi: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2009.06.009

E.M. Sunderland, D.P. Krabbenhoft, J.W. Moreau, S.A. Strode, W.M. Landing, Mercury sources, distribution, and bioavailability in the North Pacific Ocean: insights from data and models, Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles, 23 (2009) GB2010. doi: 10.1029/2008GB003425

D.G. Streets, Q. Zhang, Y. Wu, Projections of global mercury emissions in 2050, Environ. Sci. Technol., 43 (2009) 2983–2988. doi: 10.1021/es802474j

E.M. Sunderland, R.P. Mason, Human impacts on open ocean mercury concentrations, Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles, 21 (2007) GB4022. doi: 10.1029/2006GB002876

C.H. Lamborg, W.F. Fitzgerald, A.W.H. Damman, J.M. Benoit, P.H. Balcom, D.R. Engstrom, Modern and historic atmospheric mercury fluxes in both hemispheres: global and regional mercury cycling implications, Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles, 16/4 (2002) 1104. doi: 10.1029/2001GB001847

R.P. Mason, K.R. Rolfhus, W.F. Fitzgerald, Mercury in the North Atlantic, Mar. Chem., 61 (1998) 37–53. doi: 10.1016/S0304-4203(98)00006-1

R.P. Mason, W.F. Fitzgerald, F.M.M. Morel, The biogeochemical cycling of elemental mercury—anthropogenic influences, Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 58 (1994) 3191–3198. doi: 10.1016/0016-7037(94)90046-9

Related EVISA Resources

Link Database: Mercury exposure through the diet
Link Database: Environmental cycling of methylmercury
Link Database: Environmental cycling of inorganic mercury
Link Database: Environmental pollution of methylmercury
Link Database: Environmental pollution of inorganic mercury
Link Database: Toxicity of mercury

Related EVISA News

November 20, 2013: EPA Study: Mercury Levels in Women of Childbearing Age Drop 34 Percent
January 14, 2013: Mercury Levels in Humans and Fish Around the World Regularly Exceed Health Advisory Levels
December 24, 2012: Mercury in food – EFSA updates advice on risks for public health
December 9, 2012: Mercury in fish more dangerous than previously believed; Scientists urge for effective treaty ahead of UN talks
June 17, 2012: Factors Affecting Methylmercury Accumulation in the Food Chain
October 15, 2011: Mercury pollution in the Great Lakes region -- nearly forgotten, but not gone
August 16, 2010: Methylmercury: What have we learned from Minamata Bay?
June 28, 2010: New Study Examines Why Mercury is More Dangerous in Oceans
August 21, 2009: USGS Study Reveals Mercury Contamination in Fish Nationwide
June 17, 2009: 'Surprisingly High Levels' of Methylmercury Contamination found in Groundwater
May 5, 2009: Ocean mercury on the rise
February 11, 2009: Mercury in Fish is a Global Health Concern
October 30, 2008: Precautionary approach to methylmercury needed
March 11, 2007: Methylmercury contamination of fish warrants worldwide public warning
October 9, 2006: Linking atmospheric mercury to methylmercury in fish
September 23, 2006: Report Finds Mercury Contamination Permeates Wildlife Systems
August 16, 2006: Mercury pollution threatens health worldwide, scientists say
February 9, 2006: Study show high levels of mercury in women related to fish consumption
September 13, 2005: Regulating Mercury Emissions from Power Plants: Will It Protect Our Health?
August 29, 2005: Is methyl mercury limiting the delight of seafood ? - To answer this question is a challenge for elemental speciation analysis
April 3, 2005: Dissension on the best way to fight mercury pollution
March 20, 2005: New results on the distribution of mercury in the USA is fueling the discussion on the necessity of the reduction of its emission
January 12, 2005: Number of fish meals is a good predictor for the mercury found in hair of environmental journalists
April 27, 2004: FDA/EPA recommends pregnant women to restrict their fish consumption because of methylmercury

last time modified: September 2, 2014


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