Greetings from sunny Smyrna, TN, where for the last few weeks we (Noelle Selin, Amanda Giang and Shaojie Song) have been participating in a mission to measure mercury and other pollutants in the atmosphere. NOMADSS is the title of the airplane-based campaign, which stands for “Nitrogen, Oxidants, Mercury and Aerosol Distributions, Sources and Sinks.” It’s part of the larger Southeast Atmosphere study that’s investigating air quality in the southeast U.S. this summer. We are using our models to predict where we’re likely to find pollution, and to interpret data from the last several days to guide planning.
Unfortunately, the sector relies heavily on mercury as a critical part of their gold extraction process. Mercury is added to ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam. This amalgam is then burned, causing the mercury to vaporize and leaving behind pure gold. While an effective process—one that has been in practice since at least 1000 CE— this type of mining leads to the direct exposure of miners to mercury, often with severe health impacts. ASGM is also responsible for the direct release of mercury into the environment and, according to the recently released Global Mercury Assessment 2013, small-scale gold mining is currently the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions. Additionally, ASGM drives a black market in mercury trade—check out Mark Staples’ blog on the illicit mercury trade to learn more about this.
Some nations, such as China, have already banned ASGM practices. Practically, however, these bans are difficult to implement. ASGM occurs almost entirely in the “informal section”—i.e., not as part of regulated industry—throughout the world, making it hard to monitor and control. As a result, the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations still occurs in nations that have implemented ASGM bans.
Despite the challenges associated with monitoring and regulating ASGM, acting to limit this major source of mercury releases is critical and possible. Accordingly, ASGM has attracted significant attention at INC5. The debate around article 9, which addresses ASGM issues, has focused on whether the import and export of mercury will be allowed for ASGM purposes, and if a phase-out date for ASGM will be introduced. In the next 24 hours, these are issues that will likely be resolved in balance with other supply and trade and products and processes issues. However, for now, it remains to be seen what will be decided.
Track us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore to see what the negotiators decide on this critical issue!
We’re certainly not the only science-folk at INC5. Over the course of the week, we’ve had the opportunity to meet many others who are here to support the negotiation in one way or another. Between sessions, I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Dr. Celia Chen, to find out a little more about why she’s here at the negotiations and what advice she has for us aspiring science-policy wonks.
Celia works in the Department of Biology at Dartmouth College, as part of the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), looks at how mercury and arsenic in the environment affect ecosystem and human health. Within the program, she spends her time “wearing two different hats,” she says, one as a traditional eco-toxicologist and principal investigator for a project on the fate of metals in aquatic food webs, and a second as the principal investigator of research translation. “Translation is part of the mandate NIEHS gives for Superfund research,” Celia explains. Not only are researchers within these programs expected to clarify the science of contamination, but they’re also expected to make sure that their findings are communicated—or translated—to stakeholders (i.e., the people who can use or are directly affected by the findings), be they regulators from the EPA and FDA, or local food cooperatives.
She sees this research translation as a crucial role that scientists must play in policy-making forums. “We need to take what we know about the science and put it in a language that is accessible to policy makers,” she argues. Too often, critical scientific knowledge remains locked up in scientific publications, which, while they are the bread-and-butter of professional research, don’t always penetrate into policy circles. Celia feels that it is the responsibility of scientists to put their work in a form that resonates with—and is useful to—those in decision-making positions, from consumers making choices about their personal fish consumption, to negotiators working at an international scale. In fact, that’s why she’s attending the mercury negotiations. In 2010, the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program created the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) to synthesize current knowledge on the environmental health impacts of mercury in a policy relevant way. Celia is attending INC5 to share the results of this project: the Sources to Seafood report.
“We tried to ask stakeholders first what they needed to know,” describes Celia. “The timing of [the Sources to Seafood report] was on purpose.”
Sources to Seafood was published on the tail of a domestic regulation in the US for mercury from coal-fired power plants, and directly before the final negotiating session for a global treaty on mercury. A key question that policy makers for both domestic and international regulation want clarified is how controlling different sources of mercury emissions and releases will actually affect human exposure. This question is important for both designing new policy and evaluating existing ones.
“When we began this work, most of the research done on mercury in the environment was done in freshwater systems, not marine. But most people are exposed to methylmercury through marine seafood,” Chen says. The report estimates that, for most of the US population, 85% of methylmercury exposure comes from marine fish. What are the sources of mercury that affect different marine and estuarine—that is, ocean and coastal—systems, from which fish are harvested? How do these sources affect human exposure? Researchers in biogeochemistry, food web dynamics, and health were all trying to answer different parts of these questions, but these different threads weren’t being woven together into a comprehensive picture.
“The most novel part of [the Sources to Seafood report],” Celia argues, is its interdisciplinary and cross-scale approach. “There are still many gaps and not enough data,” she says, but by synthesizing many different studies from different fields, a few conclusions can be drawn.
The most important point from the Sources to Seafood report that needs to be conveyed to decision-makers, Celia highlights, is that for each ocean system, critical sources of mercury may be different—some systems are most affected by atmospheric deposition, while others are most affected by inputs from rivers. Will the draft text on emissions and releases reflect these nuances? Celia hopes that reports like Sources to Seafood might help ensure that it does.
As for students interested in marine science-policy, Celia recommends that they consider the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowships, which match students with “host” policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of the US government in Washington D.C. These fellowships are open to any student, regardless of citizenship, enrolled in a graduate program at a US university that has a Sea Grant program.
For those interested in how the final treaty shapes up, keep following developments here on our blog and via twitter @amandagiang and @MITmercury.
The confusion between bioamplification, bioaccumulation and bioconcentration is understandable. Yesterday, delegates asked for a clarification and explanation as to how this happens. These terms are not interchangeable, though they are often used as if they were. This post should clarify the situation.
Bioamplification (or biomagnification, as the picture shows) refers to an increase in the concentration of a substance as you move up the food chain. This often occurs because the pollutant is persistent, meaning that it cannot be, or is very slowly, broken down by natural processes. These persistent pollutants are transferred up the food chain faster than they are broken down or excreted.
In contrast, bioaccumulation occurs within an organism, where a concentration of a substance builds up in the tissues and is absorbed faster than it is removed. Bioaccumulation often occurs in two ways, simultaneously: by eating contaminated food, and by absorption directly from water. This second case is specifically referred to as bioconcentration.
So, what have we learned? Bioconcentration and bioaccumulation happen within an organism, but biomagnification occurs across levels of the food chain. An example: phytoplankton and other microscopic organisms take up methylmercury and then retain it in their tissues. Here, mercury bioaccumulation is occurring: mercury concentrations are higher in the organisms than it is in the surrounding environment. As animals eat these smaller organisms, they receive their prey’s mercury burden. Because of this, animals that are higher in the food chain have higher levels of mercury than they would have due to regular exposure. With increasing trophic level, mercury levels are amplified.
In writing for this blog, I’ve been considering the role of communication and message-building in science and science policy. I’m often surprised about the extent of people’s scientific knowledge. Last year I was in a bar in Cambridge that was having a trivia contest, and 90% of the trivia teams there were able to correctly identify the isotope of cesium used to define the second as a unit of time measurement. Now, this was not a random sampling of the US population at large (it was a heavy MIT crowd), but I still think that’s pretty amazing.
Yet, while I’ve been prepping for these negotiations, I have been speaking with friends and colleagues and many of them have no idea about the problems mercury poses to the world. How can the same group of people, a group that clearly has a good science foundation, be so unaware of something that is such a significant policy issue?
I don’t have a great answer (and I would love to hear thoughts from other people), but I thought it might be fun to look at how mercury and mercury-related health impacts are portrayed in popular culture to perhaps gain some insight.
Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury
It turns out there may not be a whole lot of insight to gain. Over 177 episodes of House, not once was mercury the final diagnosis, and its not like the show shied away from outré solutions. Gold, cadmium, cobalt, lead and even selenium poisoning all make it on the final diagnosis tally sheet.
In fact, mercury poisoning is rarely mentioned as even a possibility for whatever pain or illness the primary patient may have. I’ll give the writers credit, when it comes up the details are pretty accurate. In “Son of a Coma Guy,” the team guesses that seizures and visual problems could be caused by mercury exposure at a luxury yacht factory. It’s a neat throwaway fact, as mercury was formerly used in mildew-resistant paints, but that practice has been discontinued in the US since the early 90’s.
One episode of the CBS Drama The 11th Hour, in which a brilliant biophysicist solves science crimes for the FBI and stops deadly experiments (yes, that really was the premise), did look at the long lasting and potentially devastating consequences of mercury releases to lakes and watersheds. I haven’t seen the episode, but judging by the fact that the series was cancelled after just 18 episodes, I think its fair to say it wasn’t part of the cultural zeitgeist.
In movies, mercury is not represented much more. While toxic chemicals have been covered in “based on true events” movies like A Civil Action (trichloroethylene) and Erin Brockovich (hexavalent chromium), Hollywood seems to be pretty silent on mercury. The glaring exception is a wonderfully bizarre environmental agitprop horror film from the 1970s called Prophecy. In it, mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit. What it lacks in accuracy (and it lacks a lot in accuracy) it more than makes up for in terrible special effects.
Mercury’s absence in music is a bit more understandable. “Big Issue” songs, like Joni Mitchell calling for farmers to put away their DDT, have not been in vogue over the past few decades. The Dead Kennedy’s song “Kepone Factory,” about a chemical quite similar to DDT, references the Minamata disaster. In Minamata, Japan, over 2000 people have been diagnosed with a severe neurological impairments from mercury exposure. Japanese-American composer Toshiko Akiyoshi has written a jazz suite about the Minamata disaster, but unfortunately the LP with the most acclaimed recording of this piece has not been released in the US.
I’m not sure why mercury has not been more prevalent in popular culture. The potential dangers are chilling enough and the real-life tragedies (here for example) are certainly deserving of greater acknowledgement and provide compelling narratives for art. It certainly makes it harder for scientists and policymakers to enact real change, or for victims to be compensated for that matter, because there’s such a dearth of awareness of the underlying problem.
I wonder if some celebrity took up mercury as a personal cause if it could raise the public consciousness about the issue. There is evidence that it could. In late 2008, Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, citing hydrargaria from sushi consumption. When the news broke, Google searches for “mercury poisoning” nearly doubled.
Getting a high-profile public figure to support a global treaty on mercury could be one way to improve public awareness. As a scientist though, I fear the flip side of that coin. If mercury becomes a cause célèbre overnight, there may not be enough scientifically-sound publically-available literature to properly support any nascent movement. Ask a scientist studying vaccine safety how they feel about Jenny McCarthy for an idea of how scientists can quickly find themselves unable to control a scientific conversation.