Mercury releases into the atmosphere from ancient to modern times

December 14, 2011

In pursuit of riches and energy over the last 5,000 years, humans have released into the environment 385,000 tons of mercury, the source of numerous health concerns, according to a new study that challenges the idea that releases of the metal are on the decline. The report appears in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology.

David Streets and colleagues explain that humans put mercury into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and through mining and industrial processes. Mercury is present in coal and the ores used to extract gold and silver. Much information exists about recent releases of mercury, but there is little information on releases in the past. To find out how much impact people have had over the centuries, the scientists reconstructed human additions of mercury to the atmosphere using historical data and computer models.

Their research shows that mercury emissions peaked during the North American gold and silver rushes in the late 1800s, but after a decline in the middle of the 20th century, are quickly rising again thanks mostly to a surge in coal use. They report that Asia has overtaken Europe and America as the largest contributor of mercury. Recent data suggest that mercury concentrations in the atmosphere are declining, and this is not consistent with their conclusion of increasing emissions. Changing atmospheric conditions may be partly responsible, but more work is also needed to understand the fate of large amounts of mercury in discarded products like batteries and thermometers. The researchers predict mercury released from mining and fuel may take as many as 2,000 years to exit the environment and be reincorporated into rocks and minerals in the Earth.
-end-
The authors acknowledge funding from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and from the Harvard University NIEHS Center for Environmental Health.

The American Chemical Society is a non-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 163,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

To automatically receive news releases from the American Chemical Society contact newsroom@acs.org.

American Chemical Society

Related Mercury Articles from Brightsurf:

Mercury's 400 C heat may help it make its own ice
Despite Mercury's 400 C daytime heat, there is ice at its caps, and now a study shows how that Vulcan scorch probably helps the planet closest to the sun make some of that ice.

New potential cause of Minamata mercury poisoning identified
One of the world's most horrific environmental disasters--the 1950 and 60s mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan--may have been caused by a previously unstudied form of mercury discharged directly from a chemical factory, research by the University of Saskatchewan (USask) has found.

New nanomaterial to replace mercury
Ultraviolet light is used to kill bacteria and viruses, but UV lamps contain toxic mercury.

Wildfire ash could trap mercury
In the summers of 2017 and 2018, heat waves and drought conditions spawned hundreds of wildfires in the western US and in November, two more devastating wildfires broke out in California, scorching thousands of acres of forest, destroying homes and even claiming lives.

Removing toxic mercury from contaminated water
Water which has been contaminated with mercury and other toxic heavy metals is a major cause of environmental damage and health problems worldwide.

Fish can detox too -- but not so well, when it comes to mercury
By examining the tissues at a subcellular level, the researchers discovered yelloweye rockfish were able to immobilize several potentially toxic elements within their liver tissues (cadmium, lead, and arsenic) thus preventing them from interacting with sensitive parts of the cell.

Chemists disproved the universal nature of the mercury test
The mercury test of catalysts that has been used and considered universal for 100 years, turned out to be ambiguous.

Mercury rising: Are the fish we eat toxic?
Canadian researchers say industrial sea fishing may be exposing people in coastal and island nations to excessively high levels of mercury.

New estimates of Mercury's thin, dense crust
Michael Sori, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, used careful mathematical calculations to determine the density of Mercury's crust, which is thinner than anyone thought.

Understanding Mercury's magnetic tail
Theoretical physicists used simulations to explain the unusual readings collected in 2009 by the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging mission.

Read More: Mercury News and Mercury Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.