Toward the next generation of air quality monitoring: Mercury


Mercury is a global pollutant that is ubiquitous in the environment. Enrichment of mercury in the biosphere as the result of human activities and subsequent production of methylmercury (MeHg) has resulted in elevated concentrations in fish, wildlife and marine mammals globally. Elemental mercury (Hg0) is the most common form of mercury in the atmosphere, and the form that is most readily transported long distances from its emission source. Most mercury deposition from the atmosphere is in the highly soluble, oxidised inorganic form HgII. Thus, understanding atmospheric transport and oxidant distribution is essential for understanding mercury inputs to ecosystems. Methylmercury (MeHg) is the most toxic form of mercury that accumulates in aquatic food web and can cause a variety of negative health effects such as long-term IQ deficits and cardiovascular impairment in exposed individuals. Humans are predominately exposed to MeHg by consuming fish. Hg0 emitted from anthropogenic sources has a long (6 months–1 year) atmospheric residence time allowing it to be transported long distances in the atmosphere. It is eventually oxidised to the highly soluble HgII (likely by atomic Br and/or OH/O3) and rapidly deposited with precipitation. Some of the mercury deposited to terrestrial and marine ecosystems is converted to MeHg, which is the only form that bioaccumulates in aquatic food webs. Recent studies suggest that there is a first-order relationship between the supply of inorganic mercury to ecosystems and production of MeHg, thus implying that declines in deposition will translate directly into reduced concentrations in biota and human exposures. However, one of the major uncertainties in this cycle is the time scale required for these changes to take place and this is known to vary from years to centuries across different environmental compartments depending on their physical and biogeochemical attributes. Thus, a key challenge in the case of mercury pollution is understanding the link between the magnitude of mercury emissions and the concentrations found in the fish that we consume. For air quality monitoring, priorities include expanding the existing data collection network and widening the scope of atmospheric mercury measurements (elemental, oxidised, and particulate species as well as mercury in precipitation). Presently, the only accurate indicators of mercury impacts on human and biological health are methylmercury concentrations in biota. However, recent advances in analytical techniques (stable mercury isotopes) and integrated modelling tools are allowing greater understanding of the relationship between atmospheric deposition, concentrations in water, methylation and uptake by biota. This article recommends an expansion of the current atmospheric monitoring network and the establishment of new coordinated measurements of total mercury and methylmercury concentrations in seawater and concurrent concentrations and trends in marine fish.
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