In a recent stunning press release from Umeå University in Umeå, Sweden researchers discovered that because of climate change increase in mercury is putting marine life in danger. The areas most at risk include the Baltic Sea and regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and could effect not only foods sea life consume, but also foods human need. Mercury was found in zooplankton and affects the marine food web. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, is in collaboration between researchers Umeå University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Mercury is a chemical element and is also known as quicksilver. Mercury can be found as cinnabar or mercuric sulfide. The element is used in thermometers, barometers, sphygmomanometers, fluorescent lamps, and other devices. Mercury poisoning can happen if a person is exposed to water-soluble forms of the element, by inhaling mercury vapors or by ingesting any mercury. Symptoms include muscle weakness, numbness in hands and feet, rashes, memory problems, and trouble speaking, hearing, or seeing. One of the causes of mercury poisoning is eating fish with high levels of mercury. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury is one of the top ten chemicals that affects public health. Mercury can gather in the food webs of lakes and seas and can be ingested by other animals and affect their health. Sweden banned products containing mercury starting in 2009.
Erik Björn, an associate professor and lead researcher, said in the press release that the “study has revealed a phenomenon that has not been described before.” The results may be critical of how global climate change affects the element to humans and the ecosystem; he went on to add. It affects marine life in several ways: reducing sunlight reaching into the water, leading to reductions of phytoplankton production which can lead to bacteria; higher concentrations of mercury gathering in one spot before predators such as fish and zooplankton are reached. With more mercury in fish, the fish that are gathered by fishermen are then passed on to the general public causing mercury poisoning in people.
Björn stated that the results emphasize the importance of including changes to the food web and their effects in seas and lakes into risk assessments of mercury and models showing a changing climate. With climate change increasing “runoff and input of organic matter to aquatic ecosystems,” more reports of mercury poisoning will unfortunately increase. Treatment of mercury poisoning is limited, therefore stopping the contamination of mercury into the marine system is critical.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy Mattias Pettersson