"It's easier said than done, but we're advocating for aggressive reductions, and sooner rather than later," says Helen Amos, a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study, published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
Amos is a member of the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), where researchers have been collecting historical data on mercury emissions as far back as 2000 BC and building new environmental models of mercury cycling that capture the interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, and land.
Their model reveals that most of the mercury emitted to the environment ends up in the ocean within a few decades and remains there for centuries to millennia. These days, emissions are mainly from coal-fired power plants and artisanal gold mining. Thrown into the air, rained down onto lakes, absorbed into the soil, or carried by rivers, mercury eventually finds its way to the sea. In aquatic ecosystems, microbes convert it to methylmercury, the organic compound that accumulates in fish, finds its way to our dinner plates, and has been associated with neurological and cardiovascular damage.
"Today, more than half of mercury emissions come from Asia, but historically the U.S. and Europe were major emitters," says second senior author Daniel J. Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at Harvard SEAS and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "We find that half of mercury pollution in the present surface ocean comes from emissions prior to 1950, and as a result the contribution from the U.S. and Europe is comparable to that from Asia."