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Toxic Mercury in Aquatic Life Could Spike due to Climate Change


Mercury is one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says mercury is the main cause of fish consumption advisories aimed at protecting human health, the study notes.

Since the industrial era began, mercury that winds up in ecosystems is estimated to have increased by 200 to 500 percent, the study says. Mercury accumulates in fish and shellfish as methylmercury, which can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

The new study:
For the study, a group of scientists in Sweden tried to recreate the environmental conditions in a Bothnian Sea estuary off Sweden’s east coast. They created simulated ecosystems that took up two floors of a building. They collected intact sediment cores from the estuary, added water, nutrients and mercury, and studied what happened to the mercury, zooplankton and other organisms.
Photo of Erik Björn of Umeå University in Sweden injects small amounts of enriched mercury isotopes into sediments for the experiment
Photo: Sofi Jonsson: Erik Björn of Umeå University in
Sweden injects small amounts of enriched mercury isotopes
into sediments for the experiment
The scientists sought to understand, model and predict the impact of climate change on mercury accumulation and methylmercury production, said Schaefer, who specializes in methylmercury research and is trying to under- stand how bacteria transform mercury into methylmercury.

“With climate change, we expect increased precipitation in many areas in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to more runoff,” said Jeffra K. Schaefer, study coauthor and assistant research professor in Rutgers’ Department of Environmental Sciences. Natural organic matter from plants and animals in runoff also increased methylmercury levels in water by up to 200 percent.

“That means a greater discharge of mercury and organic carbon to coastal ecosystems, which leads to higher levels of mercury in the small animals living there. The study showed that an increase in natural organic matter entering coastal waters can boost the bioaccumulation of methylmercury – a highly toxic chemical found at elevated levels in many species of fish – in zooplankton by 200 to 700 percent. The huge increase in methylmercury shifts the food web from being autotrophic (largely microscopic plants and cyanobacteria that make food from inorganic matter) to heterotrophic (bacteria that eat organic matter produced by plants and cyanobacteria).

These coastal regions are major feeding grounds for fish, and thus the organisms living there serve as an important source of mercury that accumulates to high levels in the fish people like to eat.”

The results showed the importance of including the food web-related impacts of climate change on the bioaccumulation of methylmercury in future mercury models and risk assessments, the study says.

“We found that the increase in organic matter changed the food web structure in the simulated estuary and that had an impact on the mercury accumulation in zooplankton,” Schaefer said. “That was the most dramatic effect.”

“This is quite an important study,” she added. “People haven’t really considered the changes in food web structure at the bottom of the food chain and a link to mercury accumulation. I think these findings are quite surprising and, in hindsight, they make sense.”

Efforts to reduce mercury emissions may be offset by the impacts of climate change, including increased precipitation and runoff, and we might not see an expected decrease of methylmercury in the food web, she said.

The study was led by Erik Björn of EVISA member organization Umeå University in Sweden and conducted by lead author Sofi Jonsson, formerly with Umeå University and now at the University of Connecticut. Other authors include Agneta Andersson of Umeå University; Mats B. Nilsson and Ulf Skyllberg of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Erik Lundberg of Umeå University; Schaefer; and Staffan Åkerblom of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Source: Rutgers University

The original studies

Sofi Jonsson, Agneta Andersson, Mats B. Nilsson, Ulf Skyllberg, Erik Lundberg, Jeffra K. Schaefer, Staffan Åkerblom, Erik Björn, "Terrestrial discharges mediate trophic shifts and enhance methylmercury accumulation in estuarine biota," Sci. Adv., 30/1 (2017)  e1601239. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601239

Related studies (newest first)

A.T. Schartup, P.H. Balcom, A.L. Soerensen, K. Gosnell, R. Calder, R.P. Mason, E.M. Sunderland, Freshwater discharges drive high levels of methylmercury in Arctic marine biota. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112 (2015) 11789–11794. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1505541112

T. Zhang, K.H. Kucharzyk, B. Kim, M.A. Deshusses, H. Hsu-Kim, Net methylation of mercury in estuarine sediment microcosms amended with dissolved, nanoparticulate, and microparticulate mercuric sulfides. Environ. Sci. Technol., 48 (2014) 9133–9141. DOI: 10.1021/es500336j

S. Jonsson, U. Skyllberg, M.B. Nilsson, E. Lundberg, A. Andersson, E. Björn, Differentiated availability of geochemical mercury pools controls methylmercury levels in estuarine sediment and biota. Nat. Commun., 5 (2014) #5624. DOI: 10.1038/ncoms5624

D.P. Krabbenhoft, E.M. Sunderland, Global change and mercury, Science, 341 (2013) 1457–1458. DOI: 10.1126/science.1242838

J. M. Parks, A. Johs, M. Podar, R. Bridou, R. A. Hurt Jr., S. D. Smith, S. J. Tomanicek, Y. Qian, S. D. Brown, C. C. Brandt, A. V. Palumbo, J. C. Smith, J. D. Wall, D. A. Elias, L. Liang, The genetic basis for bacterial mercury methylation, Science 339 (2013) 1332–1335. DOI: 10.1126/science.1230667

R.A. Lavoie, T.D. Jardine, M.M. Chumchal, K.A. Kidd, L.M. Campbell, Biomagnification of mercury in aquatic food webs: A worldwide meta-analysis, Environ. Sci. Technol., 47 (2013) 13385–13394. DOI: 10.1021/es4034103t

T.D. Jardine, K.A. Kidd, N. O’Driscoll, Food web analysis reveals effects of pH on mercury bioaccumulation at multiple trophic levels in streams, Aquat. Toxicol., 132 (2013) 46–52. DOI: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2013.01.013

S. Jonsson, U. Skyllberg, M. B. Nilsson, P.-O. Westlund, A. Shchukarev, E. Lundberg, E. Björn, Mercury methylation rates for geochemically relevant HgII species in sediments. Environ. Sci. Technol., 46 (2012) 11653–11659. DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2012.05.002

A.C. Luengen, N.S. Fisher, B.A. Bergamaschi, Dissolved organic matter reduces
algal accumulation of methylmercury
, Environ. Toxicol. Chem., 31 (2012) 1712–1719. DOI: 10.1002/etc.1885

G.A. Stern, R.W. Macdonald, P.M. Outridge, S. Wilson, J. Chételat, A. Cole, H. Hintelmann, L.L. Loseto, A. Steffen, F. Wang, C. Zdanowicz, How does climate change influence arctic mercury? Sci. Total Environ., 414 (2012) 22–42. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.10.039

J.A. Fisher, D.J. Jacob, A.L. Soerensen, H.M. Amos, A. Steffen, E.M. Sunderland, Riverine source of Arctic Ocean mercury inferred from atmospheric observations. Nat. Geosci., 5 (2012) 499–504. DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1478

C.T. Driscoll, C.Y. Chen, C.R. Hammerschmidt, R.P. Mason, C.C. Gilmour, E.M. Sunderland, B.K. Greenfield, K.L. Buckman, C.H. Lamborg, Nutrient supply and mercury dynamics in marine ecosystems: A conceptual model. Environ. Res., 119 (2012) 118–131. DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2012.05.002

M. Kim, S. Han, J. Gieskes, D. D. Deheyn, Importance of organic matter lability for monomethylmercury production in sulfate-rich marine sediments, Sci. Total Environ., 409 (2011) 778–784. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2010.10.050

K.R. Rolfhus, B.D. Hall, B.A. Monson, M.J. Paterson, J.D. Jeremiason, Assessment of mercury bioaccumulation within the pelagic food web of lakes in the western Great Lakes region, Ecotoxicology, 20 (2011) 1520–1529.  DOI: 10.1007/s10646-011-0733-y

C.L. Miller, G. Southworth, S. Brooks, L.Y. Liang, B.H. Gu, Kinetic controls on the complexation between mercury and dissolved organic matter in a contaminated environment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 43 (2009) 8548–8553. DOI:10.1021/es90189t

L. Liao, H.M. Selim, R.D. DeLaune, Mercury adsorption-desorption and transport in soils. J. Environ. Qual., 38 (2009) 1608–1616. DOI: 10.2134/jeq2008.0343

A.R. Stewart, M.K. Saiki, J.S. Kuwabara, C.N. Alpers, M. Marvin-DiPasquale, D.P. Krabbenhoft, Influence of plankton mercury dynamics and trophic pathways on mercury concentrations of top predator fish of a mining-impacted reservoir. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., 65 (2008) 2351–2366. DOI: 10.1139/f08-140

P.R. Gorski, D.E. Armstrong, J.P. Hurley, D.P. Krabbenhoft, Influence of natural dissolved organic carbon on the bioavailability of mercury to a freshwater alga, Environ. Pollut. 154 (2008) 116–123. DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2007.12.004

W.F. Fitzgerald, C.H. Lamborg, C.R. Hammerschmidt, Marine biogeochemical cycling of mercury. Chem. Rev., 107 (2007) 641–662. DOI: 10.1021/cr050353m

A. Drott, L. Lambertsson, E. Bjorn, U. Skyllberg, Importance of dissolved neutral mercury sulfides for methyl mercury production in contaminated sediments. Environ. Sci. Technol.41 (2007) 2270–2276. DOI: 10.1021/es061724z

H. Hintelmann, R. Harris, Application of multiple stable mercury isotopes to determine the adsorption and desorption dynamics of Hg(II) and MeHg to sediments, Mar. Chem., 90 (2004) 165–173. DOI: 10.1016/j.marchem.2004.03.015

U. Skyllberg, J. Qian, W. Frech, K. Xia, W.F. Bleam, Distribution of mercury, methyl mercury and organic sulphur species in soil, soil solution and stream of a boreal forest catchment, Biogeochemistry, 64 (2003) 53–76. DOI: 10.1023/A:1024904502633

U. Skyllberg, K. Xia, P.R. Bloom, E.A. Nater, W.F. Bleam, Binding of mercury(II) to reduced sulfur in soil organic matter along upland-peat soil transects, J. Environ. Qual., 29 (2000) 855–865. DOI: 10.2134/jeq2000.00472425002900030022x

C.J. Watras, R.C. Back, S. Halvorsen, R.J.M. Hudson, K.A. Morrison, S.P. Wente, Bioaccumulation of mercury in pelagic freshwater food webs, Sci. Total Environ., 219 (1998) 183–208. DOI: 10.1016/S0048-9697(98)00228-9.

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G. C. Compeau, R. Bartha, Sulfate-reducing bacteria: Principal methylators of mercury in anoxic estuarine sediment, Appl. Environ. Microbiol., 50 (1985) 498–502.  PMC: 238649

Related EVISA Resources

Link database: Toxicity of Organic mercury compounds
Brief summary: Speciation and Toxicity
Link database: Human exposure to methylmercury via the diet

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January 21, 2013: UNEP mercury treaty exempts vaccines for children
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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
August 21, 2009: USGS Study Reveals Mercury Contamination in Fish Nationwide
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
February 9, 2006: Study show high levels of mercury in women related to fish consumption
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 content

last time modified: July 22, 2020


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