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Mercury contaminated freshwater fish from the NE United States: Where comes the mercury from ?


Many fish resources in  the NE USA are contaminated with mercury making statewide, regional and waterbody specific consumtion advisories necessary for preventing excessive human exposure to the toxic pollutant. The mercury content of fish is driven by many factors such as atmospheric deposition of mercury from regional emissions, such as coal-fired power plants, and other human activities such as waste incineration and cement production. Additionally, in urban regions, mercury from point source emissions and from legacy contamination can also contribute to Hg loads.

Once the mercury has reached the waterbody, microbial transformation to methylmercury takes place enhancing the transfer to the food chain and the uptake and bioaccumulation in fish. In order to understand the influence of different sources and mechanisms on the contamination  of fish, it is necessary to have information on the relative importance of the different sources for the contamination. To obtain such information is problematic, since relative contributions are not only dictated by pollution levels but also by different mercury species distribution and other local factors influencing their bioavailability, bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

The new study:

A group of researchers from the US Geological Survey now utilized the mercury isotope distribution to relate sources of Hg to co-located fish and bed sediments from 23 streams in the northeastern U.S.. While the use of mercury isotope distribution as a source tracer has been used before, it is difficult to apply such approach across multiple waterbodies that contain diverse land cover as well as mercury sources.

Source tracking is also complicated by reactions changing mercury speciation that imprint isotopic fractionation onto source signatures prior to bioaccumulation. Specifically photodemethylation and photreduction are such reactions known to create large shifts of the isotope signature. The researchers found that mass-dependent isotopes (δ202Hg) in prey and game fish were depleted at forested sites in comparison to urban-industrial settings. The Hg isotope signatures in fish was strongly related to in-stream and watershed land-use indicator variables. While fish isotopes were correlated with those in bed sediments, an isotopic offset between the two matrices was variable because of ecosystem-specific drivers controlling the formation of methylmercury and thereby bioaccumulation.

By using a multivariable approach including watershed characteristics and stream chemistry parameters, the researchers were able to link the Hg isotope composition in fish to current and historic Hg sources and demonstrated that the approach is able to trace bioaccumulated mercury.

The original publication:

Sarah E. Janssen, Karen Riva-Murray, John F. DeWild, Jacob M. Ogorek, Michael T. Tate, Chemical and Physical Controls on Mercury Source Signatures in Stream Fish from the Northeastern United States, Environ. Sci. Technol., 53 (2019) 10110−10119. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b03394

Related studies

N. Roxanna Razavi, S.F. Cushman, J.D. Halfman, T. Massey, R. Beutner, L.B. Cleckner, Mercury bioaccumulation in stream food webs of the Finger lakes in central New York State, USA. Ecotoxicol. Environ. Saf., 172 (2019) 265−272. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoenv.2019.01.060

D.A. Burns, K. Riva-Murray, Variation in fish mercury concentrations in streams of the Adirondack region, New York: A simplified screening approach using chemical metrics. Ecol. Indic., 84 (2018) 648−661. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2017.09.031

R. Lepak, R. Yin, S.E. Janssen, D.P. Krabbenhoft, J. Ogorek, J.J. DeWild, M.T. Tate, J.P. Hurley, Factors Affecting Mercury Stable Isotopic Distribution in Piscivorous Fish of the Great Lakes. Environ. Sci. Technol., 52/5 (2018) 2768−2776. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b06120

J.D. Blum, M.W. Johnson, Recent developments in mercury stable isotope analysis. Rev. Mineral. Geochem., 82/1 (2017) 733−757. DOI: 10.2138/rmg.2017.82.17

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