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Australian university researchers investigating the historical and contemporary uses and impacts of Mercury.
May 08, 2021
April 10, 2021
March 13, 2021
We are a team of Australian university researchers investigating the historical and contemporary uses and impacts of mercury. We conduct research in Australasia to identify potential adverse effects of mercury on the environment and human health, as well as ways in which to mitigate those risks.
To date, research on mercury in the Australasian region has been being pursued separately in different universities and research centres. Our team has arisen to unite these research efforts, aiming to create new collaborations and, crucially, to translate the research results into publicly accessible information (through this webpage).
Our team is dedicated to providing independently verified research into the sources and impacts of the commercial uses of mercury without bias from vested interests or pressure groups. Our combined many years of experience in researching mercury and related topics in the Australasian region allows us to provide highly credible and reliable findings.
Our contributors are drawn from several complementary disciplines, in particular, chemists, environmental scientists and social scientists. The multi-disciplinary nature of our team allows us to not only understand and track the cycle of mercury in the environment, but also to present our research findings as practical policy advice for governments and the broader community.
We conduct multi-disciplinary research to better understand mercury issues in Australia, in both detail and in different contexts. As a group, we are capable of both producing scientific data and translating these findings into recommendations to guide regulation and policy.
Historically, mercury has been used very widely in Australia, for example, in gold mining and in agriculture. Although Australia has ended such uses, however, contamination remains in the environment and requires ongoing monitoring and mitigation plans. The main contemporary source of mercury contamination in Australia is the emissions of coal-fired power stations (due to mercury traces in the coal which are released as it is burnt).
Most developed countries have passed laws that require the measurement of mercury contamination and also set limits on its release into the environment. Australia lags behind in this area. This should not detract from the fact that great strides have been made – but we have further to go. Today, controls on new mercury emissions only exist at the state level, and even these vary greatly both in scope and efficacy between jurisdictions. For example, some coal-fired power stations have no limits at all.
Australia signed the international Minamata Convention on Mercury on 10 October 2013, at Kumamoto in Japan. The Convention requires participating countries to introduce legislation defining allowable levels of mercury emissions, as well as ongoing monitoring. Although Australia has signed the Convention, it still has not ratified it and, as such, is not currently bound by its legal requirements.
As a research team, we are working to provide the information necessary for Australia to proceed with this ratification. This will be an important step in controlling mercury emissions in Australia and ensuring a clean and healthy environment for future generations.
Mercury (Hg) is a toxic element. It is widely distributed in the environment and is naturally present in aquatic systems, albeit in very low concentrations. The extensive industrial use of pure metal mercury and its compounds, together with widespread agricultural applications in the form of organomercurials, has resulted in serious contamination of surface waters, lakes, rivers and sediments in many locations.
The organic form of mercury accumulates in living organisms as it absorbed by fats, oils and proteins, where it remains trapped. This means that fish, turtles and other aquatic creatures will build up this form of mercury in their tissues, particularly as it moves up the food chain. No form of cooking will remove it, so when people eat mercury laden food, the mercury is transferred to them, in ever increasing concentrations. Further, females may pass on mercury to their children, either through birth or by breast-feeding.
Methylmercury has a high bioaccumulation potential, increasing its concentration in the tissues of organisms at successively as it moves up the food chain. Concentrations in water free from contamination are usually very low (e.g., 50 ng/L), but can be biomagnified to over 300 ng/g in organisms occupying high trophic positions. This represents an mercury concentration increase of 5000 fold from water to the top of the food chain.
An example of a mercury biomagnification in a food web in Lake Murray in Papua New Guinea is provided in the box below:
In Lake Murray, plankton absorb the mercury compounds directly from the water and also from algae. The plankton (with a mercury concentration of 50 ppt) are then eaten by small herbivorous fish, who eat a lot of plankton. All of the mercury from its meals builds up, so it ends up with a mercury concentration of 90 ppt.
Omnivorous fish eats a range of food items, including invertebrates. As invertebrates have higher mercury concentration than algae and plankton, omnivorous fish ends up with a concentration of 500 ppt.
As larger fish eat small fish, the mercury accumulates in them, so they end up with even higher mercury concentrations (1,200 ppt).
The Fish are then eaten by human beings. This creates a high concentration of mercury in the human being that is enough to start causing mercury poisoning.
The Impacts of Mercury Poisoning on Humans
The health impacts of mercury depend its type, the amount absorbed, the age of the recipient (worse for a foetus), and whether it was breathed in, eaten, or absorbed through the skin. Symptoms may include:
– Damage to the nervous, digestive and immune systems.
– Damage to lungs and kidneys.
– Neurological and behavioural disorders (tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction).
– Adverse effect in baby’s growing brain and nervous system (and consequently damage on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills).
– Damage to the skin or eyes.
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