Mercury Accumulation Found in Many Land Based Species
Mercury accumulation, previously considered a risk for aquatic ecosystems, is also found in many wildlife species living on the land, according to a new report published by the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Systems of the Northeast highlights the BRI’s scientific findings on high levels of mercury contamination in songbirds and bats throughout 11 northeastern states.
“While the risk of mercury to people is well known—there are more than 3,700 fish consumption advisories issued in the U.S.—we are still learning about mercury’s effects on wildlife,” says David C. Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s executive director and chief scientist. “Mercury accumulation has many implications for the health and survival of wildlife species across habitats, not just those that live and feed in aquatic habitats. Our research has found that mercury concentrations in animals that live in terrestrial environments are significant enough to cause physiological and reproductive harm. This knowledge is creating a major paradigm shift in ecotoxicological research, assessment, monitoring, management, and policy.”
Hidden Risk is the most complete synthesis of songbird and bat mercury data in the Northeast published to date. This report documents, for the first time, elevated levels of mercury in a wide range of songbirds and bats living in a variety of terrestrial ecosystems in northeastern states from Maine to Virginia. Among the findings:
- Current environmental mercury loads have the ability to significantly reduce reproductive success in several songbird species of conservation concern in the northeastern U.S., including the saltmarsh sparrow and rusty blackbird
- Bats also build up significant body burdens of mercury. Individuals from multiple species from all 10 areas sampled in the northeastern U.S. exceeded the subclinical threshold for changes to neurochemistry
- Mercury loading in songbirds is not only restricted during the breeding season. For some species, such as the northern waterthrush, high levels of mercury accumulate during migration and in tropical wintering grounds.
Songbirds and bats, often referred to as insect eaters, are more accurately called invertivores because they eat a wide variety of invertebrate species such as spiders, snails, and worms, in addition to insects. “The role of invertivores in the ecosystem has until now been largely ignored in mercury investigations,” says Evers. “However, these species are more common, widespread, and sensitive to mercury contamination than previously known; studying the terrestrial food web can serve as an effective biological network of important indicators for people and wildlife.”
Hidden Risk presents findings from at-risk habitats, and associated indicator species are identified based on the species’ level of conservation concern, relative abundance, and ability to build up mercury in the body. The report demonstrates the significant costs of mercury to wildlife that were not factored into previous cost/benefit analyses.
In the U.S., mercury becomes an air pollutant largely through emissions from coal-fired power plants. In some areas, cement plants and mining related industries also add to mercury pollution. Airborne mercury eventually returns to the earth in rain, snow, and fog droplets, as well as in dry form. Under the right conditions, mercury is transformed into methylmercury, an organic toxin that becomes magnified as it is ingested up the food chain. The toxic effects of methylmercury may include both neurological and reproductive harm to wildlife, and to people who consume contaminated wildlife.
“While air pollution impacts people and nature on public and private lands, the good news is that when action has been taken to reduce mercury emissions, the results are very promising,” says Dr. Timothy Tear, New York director of science for the Nature Conservancy. “Research has shown that reduction in mercury levels do make a difference to dramatically and quickly reverse mercury contamination trends in fish and wildlife. Reducing this neurotoxin from the environment will benefit wildlife and people.”
Hidden Risk outlines a number of management actions that can be taken to reduce the mercury risk in various terrestrial ecosystems, ranging from cleaning up legacy dump sites to reducing atmospheric deposition. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule that requires coal-fired power plants to update their mercury pollution control technologies, and this report highlights the importance of tracking the biological implications of this rule through better national and international monitoring programs. The report also calls for the establishment of critical loads for air-borne contaminants that are based upon preserving healthy ecosystems. Critical loads identify the maximum level of pollutant deposition that ecosystems can handle before harmful effects occur.
Air pollution continues to be an important area of environmental concern. The recent U.S. EPA MATS ruling and release of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program Report to Congress: An Integrated Assessment underscore the fact that although efforts to reduce air pollution in the U.S. are working, there is still much more work to be done.
More than 50 researchers contributed to the information in this report, which illustrates the continued interest in advancing our understanding of the impacts of air pollution—in particular mercury—on nature and people. Hidden Risk: Mercury in Terrestrial Systems of the Northeast and related materials are available online at by clicking here.
The mission of the Biodiversity Research Institute is to assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and to use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers. BRI’s science programs include wetlands, mammal, raptor, waterfowl, migratory bird, marine bird, coastal bird, wildlife and renewable energy, and tropical programs. BRI’s research efforts stretch throughout most of North and Central America, as well as across sites in South America, Russia, South Africa and Europe. For more information about BRI's work, click here.
For more information, click here.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
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