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Toxic mercury, accumulating in the Arctic, springs from a hidden source
Date:5/21/2012

Cambridge, Mass. - May 21, 2012 - Environmental scientists at Harvard have discovered that the Arctic accumulation of mercury, a toxic element, is caused by both atmospheric forces and the flow of circumpolar rivers that carry the element north into the Arctic Ocean.

While the atmospheric source was previously recognized, it now appears that twice as much mercury actually comes from the rivers.

The revelation implies that concentrations of the toxin may further increase as climate change continues to modify the region's hydrological cycle and release mercury from warming Arctic soils.

"The Arctic is a unique environment because it's so remote from most anthropogenic (human-influenced) sources of mercury, yet we know that the concentrations of mercury in Arctic marine mammals are among the highest in the world," says lead author Jenny A. Fisher, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard's Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS). "This is dangerous to both marine life and humans. The question from a scientific standpoint is, where does that mercury come from?"

The results of the study, which was led jointly by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), have been published in the journal Nature Geoscience on May 20.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that has been enriched in the environment by human activities such as coal combustion and mining. When converted to methylmercury by microbial processes in the ocean, it can accumulate in fish and wildlife at concentrations up to a million times higher than the levels found in the environment.

"In humans, mercury is a potent neurotoxin," explains co-principal investigator Elsie M. Sunderland, Mark and Catherine Winkler Assistant Professor of Aquatic Science at HSPH. "It can cause long-term developmental delays in exposed children and impair cardiovas
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Contact: Caroline Perry
cperry@seas.harvard.edu
617-496-1351
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert  

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