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New low-cost, nondestructive technology cuts risk from mercury hot spots
Date:10/25/2013

Hot spots of mercury pollution in aquatic sediments and soils can contaminate local food webs and threaten ecosystems, but cleaning them up can be expensive and destructive. Researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and University of Maryland, Baltimore County have found a new low-cost, nonhazardous way to reduce the risk of exposure: using charcoal to trap it in the soil.

Mercury-contaminated "Superfund sites" contain some of the highest levels of mercury pollution in the U.S., a legacy of the many industrial uses of liquid mercury. But despite the threat, there are few available technologies to decrease the risk, short of digging up the sediments and burying them in landfillsan expensive process that can cause significant ecological damage.

In a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Cynthia Gilmour (SERC), Upal Ghosh (UMBC) and their colleagues show that adding activated carbon, a form of charcoal processed to increase its ability to bind chemicals, can significantly reduce mercury exposure in these highly contaminated sites. With funding and support from several industry and federal partners, the team tested the technology in the laboratory with mercury-contaminated sediments from four locations: a river, a freshwater lake and two brackish creeks. To reduce the harm from mercury, the sorbents also had to decrease the amount of methylmercury taken up by worms.

"Methylmercury is more toxic and more easily passed up food webs than inorganic mercury," said Gilmour, the lead author on the study. "Unfortunately, methylmercury is produced from mercury contamination by natural bacteria. To make contaminated sites safe again, we need to reduce the amount of methylmercury that gets into animals."

Added at only 5 percent of the mass of surface sediments, activated carbon reduced methylmercury uptake by sediment-dwelling worms by up to 90 percent. "This technology provides
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Contact: Kristen Minogue
minoguek@si.edu
443-482-2325
Smithsonian
Source:Eurekalert  

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