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Your Environment. Your Health.

Dartmouth Superfund Research Program Informs International Mercury Reduction Efforts

Mercury, methylmercury, and aquatic food webs

Chen is studying the cycling of mercury (Hg2+) and its more toxic form, methylmercury (MeHg), in aquatic food webs.
(Photo courtesy of the Dartmouth SRP Center)

A recent article highlights key research advances and needs to inform international policy decision making related to mercury. The article, co-authored by Celia Chen, Ph.D., of the Dartmouth College Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, emphasizes the importance of bringing together scientific information to better understand the sources of mercury, its movement through the environment, and its effects on human and ecosystem health. Chen is an internationally recognized researcher on the accumulation of metals like mercury in aquatic food webs and serves as director of the Dartmouth SRP’s Research Translation Core.

Mercury contamination is a global problem. Recent advances in the measurement of mercury have helped scientists identify and monitor mercury in the environment. They have found that mercury levels in the atmosphere have been going down in North America and Europe; however, these levels have been increasing in East Asia and the Southern Hemisphere. More research is needed to understand mercury use and transport at the global scale.

Celia Chen speaking at a conference

Chen addressed the Conference of the Parties (COP) signatories to the Minamata Convention on Mercury in September 2017. The next COP will be held in November 2018.
(Photo courtesy of Celia Chen)

This understanding is important as mercury can have adverse effects in humans, such as nervous system and digestive system toxicity. Symptoms can include memory loss, tremors, insomnia, and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Humans can be exposed to mercury through eating fish that contain a toxic form of mercury called methylmercury. Chen and other researchers are learning how mercury in the environment becomes available to organisms like fish and transforms into methylmercury. They also are developing effective ways to educate communities that rely on fish for their diet.

More research is also needed to understand how climate change might influence mercury movement through the environment. For example, during wildfires, mercury that was absorbed into plants can be released into the environment again. With predictions of more wildfires and other factors related to climate change, scientists are researching these processes to help policymakers with science-based decision making and land-use planning.

The recent paper is based on important findings and next steps discussed at the SRP-sponsored 13th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP-13), held in Providence, Rhode Island, in July 2017. A major goal of the conference was to inform policy changes in support of the Minamata Convention, which aims to protect human health and the environment from mercury releases. ICMGP-13 organizers previously commissioned four papers, published in the journal Ambio, to communicate important information from the conference.

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