Environmental Factors


Mercury has become an environmental pollutant because agricultural, industrial, commercial and household products and wastes containing mercury are not properly managed, allowing the mercury to escape into the atmosphere and waterways. Large amounts of mercury become airborne when coal, oil, wood, or natural gas are burned as fuel or when mercury-containing garbage is incinerated. Once on the air, mercury can fall to the ground with rain and snow, landing on soil or in bodies of water, causing contamination. Lakes and rivers are also contaminated when there is a direct discharge of mercury-laden industrial and municipal waste into these water bodies. Once present, mercury accumulates in the tissue of fish and other organisms and may ultimately reach the dinner table.

Elemental mercury and mercury salts, although fairly inert when deposited on the bottom of waterways, are converted into organic mercury, typically methylmercury, by microorganisms. Organic mercury compounds, especially methylmercury, are more toxic than other forms because they easily cross cell membranes. Methylmercury then enters the food chain where it is biomagnified up to 100,000 times in predacious fish. Eagles, osprey, loons, turtles, mink, otters, and other fish eating creatures are at risk from eating mercury-contaminated fish. Mercury in their diets can cause early death, weight loss, and problems with their ability to reproduce. Unfortunately, wildlife cannot read fish advisories or change their eating habits in order to avoid mercury contamination.

Additional Resources
United States Environmental Protection Agency Sites
NEWMOA Mercury Program

Northeast Waste Management Officials Association site to help states "achieve their 'virtual elimination' goal for mercury by focusing in particular on efforts to reduce or eliminate mercury from the waste stream." Information includes:

  1. Instructions for cleaning up small liquid mercury spills in households
  2. Mercury-added Products Database
  3. Indoor Air Mercury - a report describing why mercury is a problem in indoor air with guidelines for mercury exposure limits