Mercury and its Effects on the Environment

What is Mercury?

Mercury is an element which at one point in time was used broadly as a commercial material. Due to its unique characteristics of being both a liquid and capable of conducting electricity, it served and continues to serve a wide variety of uses within electrical products. The dangers of mercury poisoning are severe, however, due to it being a potent neurotoxin capable of crossing the blood brain barrier. This means that mercury which is ingested into the body is capable of moving through the blood and into the brain where it can then cause problems with coordination, eyesight, and tactile sense. At higher doses, mercury is even capable of causing death as occurred in the famous case of Karren Wetterhahn, who was an expert on mercury poisoning but was accidentally exposed to a severe concentration. Interestingly, the liquid form of mercury which if often used in commercial products is not considered highly toxic, however, the vapor and methylmercury forms that can arise from it are highly dangerous. One of the largest sources of dangerous mercury vapor, which continues to be emitted to this day, is coal burning power plants. 

Health Effects of Mercury:

How is the Environment Affected?

It is reported that half of the non-natural production of airborne mercury comes from coal burning power plants. Mercury exists in coal and so when it is burned much of the mercury composition is released into the air instead of becoming part of the ash. These emissions can have large negative impacts on the environment due to their accumulation. The airborne mercury can be deposited on both land and bodies of water where it can then be taken in by smaller life forms. In a process known as biomagnification, initially small concentrations of mercury build up to dangerous levels as smaller organisms (such as bacteria, and plants), which directly absorb the mercury from the environment, are consumed by predators in larger numbers. This problem can eventually affect humans if animals are consumed from polluted areas. The building up of concentrations of mercury within animals can have devastating effects on wildlife populations, especially in the areas around these power plants where emissions are high.

A recently published article within the San Francisco Chronicle described how this problem is currently affecting the mountain lion population in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Researchers have discovered elevated concentrations of mercury within the blood of mountain lions. One of the leading theories for this elevation in blood mercury content is the increase of fog in the area. It is believed that recently increased levels of fog have been carrying previously deposited mercury from the oceans inland where it is then deposited in the sediment. Lichens can absorb this mercury which are then consumed by deer which are then consumed by mountain lions in a process of biomagnification which endangers the mountain lion population. The original source of this mercury is hypothesized to be the coal burning power plants that are found around the Santa Cruz area. Such examples of mercury pollution affecting wildlife are unfortunately not extremely rare as warnings are often put out regarding the consumption of fish due to similar mercury poisoning concerns. In order to avoid the dangerous effects of mercury pollution and poisoning, action should be taken to minimize the pollution caused by coal burning power plants and any other sources. The potential for devastation is apparent and must be dealt with if we are to continue using mercury containing fuel sources or products.

Mountain Lion Article:

5 thoughts on “Mercury and its Effects on the Environment

  1. This post hits close to home quite literally considering I am from Santa Cruz. The mountains are beautiful and are thought to have “fresh air” compared to the valley. It’s easy to forget about some pollution issues, like chemicals in the fog, if you can’t see them. As biomagnification occurs mercury in the mountain lions is only a glimpse into how it is affecting the whole ecosystem there.

  2. Interesting article! While it is known that some fish populations have elevated levels of mercury, I was not aware that this was also having a detrimental effect on land mammals such as mountain lions.

  3. This is very informative. I feel like mercury poison should be discussed more than it is in our general population. In addition to the damage coal plants due to the environment via releasing fossil fuels, this is just another reason why coal plants are dangerous to both us and the environment. The lion is just one of the many species, including humans that it could adversely affect. I hope that in the future there will be more news and media coverage around this issue, before it becomes much worse.

  4. I have known for quite some time now that burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment, but I never considered how metals such as mercury could be released through this process. It is interesting that Santa Cruz has a coal power plant issue since I have always thought of it as a very eco-conscious city.

  5. This is very interesting that most of our mercury exposure is from coal burning. I did not know this. I would’ve guessed that we would be exposed through electronics more than other sources. That is scary its effects on our health! I hope they stop using these harmful fuels containing mercury!

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