Scientists unite to highlight mercury threat

The world's leading mercury specialists have published their collected findings on the toxic metal, claiming it poses a serious global pollution threat.

Eating predatory fish like tuna is the main source of mercury exposure for many people

Eating predatory fish like tuna is the main source of mercury exposure for many people

Nobody will be surprised to hear that mercury pollution has been rising since the industrial revolution and now contaminates the seas and sky.

But the Madison Declaration on Nuclear Pollution, essentially a collection of five academic papers with a warning attached, suggests the problem is an order of magnitude higher than was previously suspected.

The declaration is a summary of the findings of those working in the field since last summer's international conference on mercury as a global pollutant held in Madison, Wisconsin.

The papers summarize what is presently known about the sources and movement of mercury in the atmosphere, the socio-economic and health effects of mercury pollution on human populations, and its effects on the world's fisheries and wildlife.

The key findings of the papers were:
  • Mercury falling from the sky has tripled in the past 200 years.

  • Unregulated use of mercury in small-scale gold mining, particularly in the developing world, is polluting thousands of sites, posing long-term health risks to an estimated 50 million inhabitants of mining regions and contributing more than 10%. The rate at which mercury levels are increasing in the developing world is outstripping any gains made by reductions in the industrialised world.

  • Little is known about the behavior of mercury in marine ecosystems and methylmercury contamination of marine fishes, the ingestion of which is the primary way most people at all levels of society worldwide are exposed to this highly toxic form of mercury.

  • The health risks posed by mercury-contaminated fish warrant a general warning to the public--especially children and women of childbearing age--to be careful about how much and which fish they eat.

  • Methylmercury levels in fish-eating birds and mammals in some parts of the world are reaching toxic levels, which may lead to population declines in these species and possibly in fish as well.

    "The policy implications of these findings are clear," said Dr James Wiener, the Wisconsin professor who chaired last August's conference.

    "The declaration and the detailed analyses of the five supporting papers clearly demonstrate the need for effective national and international policies to combat the environmental mercury problem."

    Wiener said the Madison Declaration summarizes a year-long effort by many of the world's leading mercury scientists, assembled into four conference panels, to review and synthesize mercury science findings. All members of the scientific panels endorsed the declaration, he said.

    Sam Bond

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