New findings on mercury contamination and seafood

Mercury released into the air and then deposited into oceans is increasingly contaminating seafood commonly eaten by people in the United States and globally, report scientists from Dartmouth College, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and colleagues from other institutions in new research in the current issue of the journal Environmental Research and a companion report. The new studies are the culmination of two years of work by 70 mercury and marine scientists from multiple disciplines.

Over the past century, mercury pollution on ocean surfaces has more than doubled as a result of human activities such as coal burning, mining, and other industrial processes. High levels of exposure to mercury through fish consumption has been shown to cause a variety of adverse neurological and reproductive effects in humans and wildlife.

“Oceans are home to large tuna and swordfish, which together account for more than half of the mercury intake from seafood for the overall U.S. population,” said Elsie Sunderland, Mark and Catherine Winkler assistant professor of aquatic science in the Department of Environmental Health at HSPH. Sunderland was lead author of a study on mercury in the Gulf of Maine, is a key author of several other mercury studies in the journal, and is a lead author of the companion report. “As consumers, we should be concerned about rising global emissions of mercury because most people eat wild ocean fish, and mercury levels are expected to increase in the major areas where we are harvesting these fish, such as the Pacific Ocean.”

Relevant to Upcoming UN Discussions

The research findings are especially timely as the U.S. and other nations prepare for the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC5) on January 13-18, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland, where an international treaty to reduce mercury use and pollution is expected to be discussed.

“Consumer pressure for regulation of mercury sources, which is particularly relevant at this time when both national and international regulations are being considered by policy makers, will allow people to continue to enjoy the health benefits of seafood,” Sunderland said.

Read the companion report: Sources to Seafood: Mercury Pollution in the Marine Environment

Learn more

Toxic Mercury, Accumulating In the Arctic, Springs From a Hidden Source (HSPH press release)

Mercury on the Rise in Endangered Pacific Seabirds (HSPH press release)