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Mercury Levels in Humans and Fish Around the World Regularly Exceed Health Advisory Levels


The report, a collaboration between IPEN and Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), highlights the urgent need for an overall reduction in mercury emissions when government delegates convene this week in Geneva in their final negotiating session to establish an international mercury treaty – the first global treaty on the environment in more than a decade by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The new report:
The report, Global Mercury Hotspots, “brings together new data on mercury concentrations in fish and  human hair samples and identifies, for the first time, a set of global biological hotspots where elevated  levels of mercury are sufficient to pose serious threats to both ecosystems and human health,” said David  C. Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s executive director and chief scientist. The report was a joint collaboration between  IPEN, a global network of public interest organizations, and the scientific research team of BRI.

Key findings from the report:
  • Mercury contamination is ubiquitous in marine and freshwater systems around the world.  
  • Biological mercury hotspots are globally common and are related to a variety of human activities,  such as chlor-alkali facilities, contaminated sites, coal-fired power plants, artisanal small-scale  gold mining, mixed-used chemical industry sites and other sources.  
  • Fish samples from around the world regularly demonstrate mercury concentrations exceeding  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) human health advisory guidelines. In the study,  from 43 up to 100 percent of fish samples from 9 countries exceeded safe consumption of one  fish meal of 170 grams (6 ounces) per month. Mercury concentrations in fish from sites in Japan  and Uruguay were so high that no consumption is recommended.  
  • More than 82 percent of human hair samples from 8 countries exceeded U.S EPA reference dose  levels of 1.0 ppm. In Thailand, 20 out of 20 individuals living near an industrial site had unsafe  levels; 19 out of 20 Indonesians at a gold mining site exceeded EPA recommended levels; and 18  out of 20 individuals in Tokyo, Japan had similarly high levels.    

Public interest groups such as IPEN are concerned that current proposed treaty measures are not sufficient  to prevent continued health impacts from mercury or reduce global levels of mercury in fish. Concluding negotiations on the mercury treaty will take place on January 13 to 18, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.  

“We found that fish and human hair from around the world regularly exceeded health advisory levels,”  said Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical advisor with IPEN. “The results demonstrate the need for a  mercury treaty that mandates true reductions of mercury emissions – not just to air but to land and water as well. Mercury is a large and serious global threat to human health that requires a robust and ambitious  global response.”  

There are also growing objections to naming the treaty, the Minamata Convention, as proposed by a  former Japanese prime minister, and holding the treaty signing ceremony in Minamata, Japan, a site  where mercury contamination has devastated the community’s human and animal population for decades.  As currently proposed, the treaty does not contain any obligations to identify or clean up contaminated  sites, does not require polluters to pay for health damages or environmental clean up, or provide for  protection from similar disasters occurring anywhere in the world. Varying objections to the name have  been raised by some government delegates, organizations representing victims of the tragedy, and the  Minamata City Council.  

Human activities such as burning coal, mining and refining metal ores, and the manufacture of cement  release mercury into the environment. Large intentional uses of mercury today include small-scale gold  mining and vinyl chloride monomer production. Coal combustion is also a significant contributor to atmospheric mercury emissions and subsequent global deposition. Much of the mercury produced and  used eventually volatizes into the atmosphere and travels around the globe, eventually falling back to the  earth or ocean.  

When mercury falls into the ocean and waterways, microorganisms transform it into an especially toxic form of mercury, methylmercury, which then becomes part of the food chain. Methylmercury is readily  absorbed by the body and people are exposed primarily through the consumption of fish. Many national  and international health organizations recognize mercury in fish as a threat to human health, livelihoods,  and the environment.  The dangers of mercury poisoning have been known for centuries. Exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys. Harmful effects are also passed from a mother to her developing fetus and can result in brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures and an inability to  speak.  

Source: Biodiversity Research Institute

The original report:

BRI/IPEN: Global Mercury Hotspots, BRI/IPEN, January 2013

Related Reports

BRI - Report: Mercury in the Global Environment: Patterns of Global Seafood Mercury Concentrations and their Relationship with Human Health
Zero Mercury Working Group - Report: Mercury Contamination, Exposures and Risk: A New Global Picture Emerges, December 2012
Zero Mercury Working Group - Report: An Overview of Epidemiological Evidence on the Effects of Methylmercury on Brain Development, and A Rationale for a Lower Definition of Tolerable Exposure, December 2012

Related studies:

K. Ashe, Elevated Mercury Concentrations in Humans of Madre de Dios, Peru, PLoS ONE, 7/3 (2012) e33305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033305

Chang-Hun You, Byoung-Gwon Kim, Eun-Mi Jo, Gyeong-Yeon Kim, Byeng-Chul Yu, Myeong-Gon Hong, Dae-Seon Kim, Young-Seoub Hong, The relationship between the fish consumption and blood total/methyl-mercury concentration of costal area in Korea, NeuroToxicology, 33 (2012) 676–682. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2012.04.005

Luciana A. Farias, Déborah I.T. Fávaro, Artemiza Pessoa, Jaime P.L. Aguiar, Lúcia K.O. Yuyama, Mercury and methylmercury concentration assessment in children’s hair from Manaus, Amazonas State, Brazil, Acta Amazon., 42(2) 2012: 279 - 286. doi: 10.1590/S0044-59672012000200015

Daniel Peplow, Sarah Augustine, Community-Led Assessment of Risk fromExposure toMercury by Native AmerindianWayana in Southeast Suriname, J. Environ. Public Health, 2012 (2012) ID 674596. doi:10.1155/2012/674596

Sergi Diez, Jose M. Esbri, Aurelio Tobias, Pablo Higueras, Alba Martinez-Coronado, Determinants of exposure to mercury in hair from inhabitants of the largest mercury mine in the world, Chemosphere, 84 (2011) 571–577. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2011.03.065

A. Miklavcic, P. Cuderman, D.Mazej, J. Snoj Tratnik, M. Krsnik, P. Planinsek, J. Osredkar, M. Horvat, Biomarkers of low-level mercury exposure through fish consumption in pregnant and lactating Slovenian women, Environ. Res., 111 (2011) 1201–1207. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2011.07.006

Herman Gibb, Cary Haver, Kostj Kozlov, Jose A. Centeno, Vera Jurgenson, Allan Kolker, Kathryn M. Conko, Edward R. Landa & Hanna Xu, Biomarkers of Mercury Exposure in Two Eastern Ukraine Cities, J. Occup. Environ. Hyg., 8/4 (2011) 187.193.  doi: 10.1080/15459624.2011.556984

Wenjing Tian, Grace M. Egeland, Isaac Sobol, Hing Man Chan, Mercury hair concentrations and dietary exposure among Inuit preschool children in Nunavut, Canada, Environment International 37 (2011) 42–48. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2010.05.017

Ping Li, Xinbin Feng, Lihai Shang, Guangle Qiu, Bo Meng, Hua Zhang, Yanna Guo, Peng Liang, Human co-exposure to mercury vapor and methylmercury in artisanal mercury mining areas, Guizhou,China, Ecotoxicol. Environ. Safety, 74(2011)473–479. doi:10.1016/j.ecoenv.2010.10.030

Marie Lynn Miranda, Sharon Edwards, Pamela J. Maxson, Mercury Levels in an Urban Pregnant Population in Durham County, North Carolina, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 8 (2011) 698-712; doi:10.3390/ijerph8030698

Andrea Garcia Bravo, Jean-Luc Loizeau, Sylvain Bouchet, Alexandre Richard, Jean Francois Rubin, Viorel-Gheorge Ungureanu, David Amouroux, Janusz Dominik, Mercury human exposure through fish consumption in a reservoir contaminated by a chlor-alkali plant: Babeni reservoir (Romania), Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res., 17 (2010) 1422–1432. DOI 10.1007/s11356-010-0328-9

Elsie Sunderland, Elizabeth Corbitt, Daniel Cossa, David Evers, Hans Friedli, David Krabbenhoft, Leonard Levin, Nicola Pirrone, Glenn Rice, Impacts of Intercontinental Mercury Transport on Human & Ecological Health, in: Nicola Pirrone and Terry Keating, Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution 2010. PART B: Mercury, Air Pollution Studies No. 18, United Nations, New York and Geneva, 2010. ISBN 978-92-1-117044-3

Ray B. Voegborlo, Akito Matsuyama, Anthony A. Adimado, Hirokatsu Akagi,Head Hair Total Mercury and Methylmercury Levels in  Ghanaian Individuals for the Estimation of Their Exposure to Mercury: Preliminary Studies, Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol., 84 (2010) 34–38. DOI: 10.1007/s00128-009-9901-7

Homira Agah, Martine Leermakers, Yue Gao, S.M.R. Fatemi, M. Mohseni Katal, Willy Baeyens, Marc Elskens, Mercury accumulation in fish species from the Persian Gulf and in human hair from fishermen, Environ. Monit. Assess., 169 (2010) 203–216.
DOI: 10.1007/s10661-009-1162-8

Leonardo Trasande, Juanita E. Cortes, Philip J. Landrigan, Mary I. Abercrombie, Richard F. Bopp, Enrique Cifuentes, Methylmercury exposure in a subsistence fishing community in Lake Chapala, Mexico: an ecological approach, Environ. Health, 9 (2010) 1.  doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-9-1

Steven C. Patch, Ann Marie Traylor, Diane Morgan, Mercury in Human Hair and Associations with Fish Consumption and other Potential Sources, Technical Report # 09-196, Environmental Quality Institute, 2010

Eunice Marcano, Mary Labady, Clara Gomes, Guillermina Aguiar, Jorge Laine, High levels of Mercury and Lead detected by hair analysis in two Venezuelan environments, Acta Amazon.,  39/2 (2009) 315 - 318. doi: 10.1590/S0044-59672009000200010

Ping Li, Xinbin Feng, Guangle Qiu, Lihai Shang, Guanghui Li, Human hair mercury levels in the Wanshan mercury mining area, Guizhou Province, China, Environ. Geochem. Health, 31 (2009) 683–691. DOI 10.1007/s10653-008-9246-x

Flavia L Barbieri, Jacques Gardon, Hair mercury levels in Amazonian populations: spatial distribution and trends, Inter. J. Health Geographics, 8 (2009) 71. doi: 10.1186/1476-072X-8-71

Mája Cejchanová, Vera Spevácková, Karel Kratzer, Katerina Wranová, Václav Spevácek, Bohuslav Beneš, Determination of Mercury and Methylmercury in Hair of the Czech Children’s Population, Biol. Trace Elem. Res., 121 (2008) 97–105. DOI: 10.1007/s12011-007-8034-2

Hecham Elhamri, Larbi Idrissi, Marina Coquery, Sabine Azemard, Abdellah Elabidi, Mohamed Benlemlih, Mohamed Saghi, Francesco Cubadda, Hair mercury levels in relation to fish consumption in a community of the Moroccan Mediterranean coast, Food Add.  Contam., 24/11 (2007)1236-1246. doi: 10.1080/02652030701329611

René Canuel, Sylvie Boucher de Grosbois, Laura Atikessé, Marc Lucotte, Paul Arp, Charles Ritchie, Donna Mergler, Hing Man Chan, Marc Amyot, Robin Anderson, New Evidence on Variations of Human Body Burden of Methylmercury from Fish Consumption, Environ. Health Perspect., 114/2 (2006) 302–306. doi: 10.1289/ehp.7857

Cecilia Johnsson, Gerd Sällsten, Andrejs Schütz, Anna Sjörs, Lars Barregard, Hair mercury levels versus freshwater fish consumption in household members of Swedish angling societies,  Environ. Res., 96 (2004) 257–263. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2004.01.005

A.A. Adimado, D.A. Baah, Mercury in Human Blood, Urine, Hair, Nail, and Fish from the Ankobra and Tano River Basins in Southwestern Ghana, Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol., 68 (2002) 339–346. DOI: 10.1007/s00128-001-0259-8

Related EVISA Resources

Link database: Mercury exposure through the diet
Link database: Environmental cycling of mercury
Link database: Toxicity of Organo-mercury compounds
Link database: Research projects related to organo-mercury compounds

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March 1, 2012: High levels of mercury in newborns likely from mothers eating contaminated fish
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?
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October 30, 2008: Precautionary approach to methylmercury needed
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last time modified: January 14, 2013


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