Superfund Research Program
Marine Mercury: From Sources to Seafood
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Mercury released into the air and then deposited into oceans contaminates seafood commonly eaten by people in the U.S. and globally, according to findings from the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC). In the past century, mercury pollution in the surface ocean has more than doubled as a result of past and present human activities, such as coal burning, mining, and other industrial processes.
C-MERC, which is organized and facilitated by the Dartmouth College Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program (SRP) Research Translation Core (RTC), published nine papers in a special issue (November 2012) of the journal Environmental Research. The issue is dedicated to exploring the pathways and transformations of mercury and methylmercury from sources to seafood consumers in specific marine ecosystems. A companion report, Sources to Seafood1, released in December 2012, reviews the pathways and consequences of mercury pollution across marine systems by drawing on findings from the C-MERC papers, scientific literature, and data from a range of marine systems and coastal basins.
The C-MERC reviews suggest that mercury deposited from the atmosphere into the oceans ranges from 56% in several large gulfs to 90% in the open ocean. The open ocean is home to large tuna and swordfish, which together account for more than half of the mercury intake from seafood in the U.S. population.
Approximately one-third of all mercury emissions are associated with current industrial sources and other human activities that can be controlled. Model estimates from the report indicate that methylmercury concentrations in marine fish will decline roughly in proportion to decreases in mercury inputs, though the timing of the response will vary. Models of the North Atlantic Ocean indicate that a 20% cut in the amount of mercury deposited would lead to about a 16% decline of mercury in fish.
“It is important to realize that achieving a 20% decrease in mercury deposition will require substantial cuts in current anthropogenic emissions, given the already very sizeable build-up of mercury in terrestrial environments and ocean waters,” said Robert P. Mason, Ph.D., professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut. Mason is a lead author of the Environmental Research paper on mercury biogeochemical cycling in the ocean and a lead author of Sources to Seafood.
The report also examines the effects of local mercury inputs in near-shore coastal waters and found a contrasting pattern to oceans. River inputs can be as much as 80% of the total mercury to some estuaries where there are large mercury sources such as historically contaminated sites, release of mercury from wastewater or industrial waste, and mercury deposition into the watershed.
“C-MERC's synthesis of research identifies the most important drivers of mercury pollution to different oceans and coastal waters, and can help policymakers understand the links between environmental processes, methylmercury levels in marine ecosystems, human exposure, and the human health effects— all of which are critical to the discussion of how local, regional, and global mercury pollution affects the world's supply of seafood," said SRP researcher and RTC leader Celia Chen, Ph.D. She is a co-author of the new Environmental Research papers on nutrient supply and mercury dynamics and mercury sources in the Gulf of Maine. Chen also authored an editorial on the subject in the Environmental Research issue and is a lead author of the Sources to Seafood report.
“The good news is that the science suggests that if mercury inputs are curtailed, mercury levels in ocean fish will decline and decrease the need for warnings to limit consumption of this globally important food source,” added Chen.
The Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC)
The C-MERC papers are the culmination of two years of work by approximately 70 mercury and marine scientists from multiple disciplines, including biology, ecotoxicology, engineering, environmental geochemistry, and epidemiology.
C-MERC was established by the Dartmouth SRP in 2010 to review current knowledge and knowledge gaps relating to mercury contamination of marine fish and to use science to inform policy decisions on a regional, national, and global scale. As part of the C-MERC process, the Dartmouth SRP Research Translation Core held two workshops over a two-year period for over 50 international marine mercury scientists and policy stakeholders to formulate and respond to policy relevant questions on the inputs, cycling, and uptake of mercury in ocean ecosystems and the links to fish, wildlife, and human exposure to methylmercury.
C-MERC published two additional human health articles and an editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives in June 2012.
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- Kirk JL, Lehnherr I, Andersson M, Braune BM, Chan L, Dastoor AP, Durnford D, Gleason AL, Loseto LL, Steffen A, St. Louis VL. 2013. Mercury in Arctic marine ecosystems: sources, pathways and exposure. Environ Res 119:64-87. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.08.012 PMID:23102902 PMCID:PMC4142812
- Lambert KF, Evers DC, Warner KA, King SL, Selin NE. 2013. Integrating mercury science and policy in the marine context: challenges and opportunities. Environ Res 119:132-142. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.06.002 PMID:22901766 PMCID:PMC4271454
- Chen CY. 2012. Methylmercury effects and exposures: who is at risk?. Environ Health Perspect 120:A224-5. doi:10.1289/ehp.1205357 PMID:22659330 PMCID:PMC3385461
- Chen CY, Driscoll CT, Lambert KF, Mason RP, Rardin LR, Serrell N, Sunderland EM. 2012. Marine mercury fate: from sources to seafood consumers. Environ Res 119:1-2. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.10.001 PMID:23121885
- Costa MF, Landing WM, Kehrig HA, Barletta M, Holmes CD, Barrocas PG, Evers DC, Buck DG, Vasconcellos AC, Hacon SS, Moreira JC, Malm O. 2012. Mercury in tropical and subtropical coastal environments. Environ Res 119:88-100. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.07.008 PMID:22901765 PMCID:PMC4070745
- Davis JA, Looker RE, Yee D, Marvin-Di Pasquale M, Grenier JL, McKee LJ, Greenfield BK, Brodberg R, Blum JD, Austin CM. 2012. Reducing methylmercury accumulation in the food webs of San Francisco Bay and its local watersheds. Environ Res 119:3-26. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.10.002 PMID:23122771 PMCID:PMC4062181
- Driscoll CT, Chen CY, Hammerschmidt CR, Mason RP, Gilmour CC, Sunderland EM, Greenfield BK, Buckman KL, Lamborg CH. 2012. Nutrient supply and mercury dynamics in marine ecosystems: A conceptual model. Environ Res 119:118-131. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.05.002 PMID:22749872 PMCID:PMC3646528
- Harris R, Pollman C, Hutchinson D, Landing WM, Axelrad D, Morey SL, Dukhovskoy D, Vijayaraghavan K. 2012. A screening model analysis of mercury sources, fate and bioaccumulation in the Gulf of Mexico. Environ Res 119:53-63. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.08.013 PMID:23102631
- Harris R, Pollman C, Landing WM, Evans DW, Axelrad D, Hutchinson D, Morey SL, Rumbold D, Dukhovskoy D, Adams DH, Vijayaraghavan K, Holmes CD, Atkinson R, Myers T, Sunderland EM. 2012. Mercury in the Gulf of Mexico: sources to receptors. Environ Res 119:42-52. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.08.001 PMID:23098613
- Karagas MR, Choi AL, Oken E, Horvat M, Schoeny R, Kamai E, Cowell W, Grandjean P, Korrick SA. 2012. Evidence on the human health effects of low-level methylmercury exposure. Environ Health Perspect 120:799-806. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104494 PMID:22275730 PMCID:PMC3385440
- Karagas MR, Sunderland EM, Amirbahman A, Burgess NM, Dalziel J, Harding G, Jones SH, Kamai E, Shi X, Chen CY. 2012. Mercury sources and fate in the Gulf of Maine. Environ Res 119:27-41. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.03.011 PMID:22572623 PMCID:PMC3442131
- Mason RP, Choi AL, Fitzgerald WF, Hammerschmidt CR, Lamborg CH, Soerensen AL, Sunderland EM. 2012. Mercury biogeochemical cycling in the ocean and policy implications. Environ Res 119:101-117. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2012.03.013 PMID:22559948 PMCID:PMC3427470
- Oken E, Choi AL, Karagas MR, Marien K, Rheinberger CM, Schoeny R, Sunderland EM, Korrick SA. 2012. Which fish should I eat? Perspectives influencing fish consumption choices. Environ Health Perspect 120(6):790-798. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104500 PMID:22534056 PMCID:PMC3385441
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