Public Release: 

Mercury releases into the atmosphere from ancient to modern times

American Chemical Society

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.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and from the Harvard University NIEHS Center for Environmental Health.

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