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Mercury In The Environment

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Environmental Science 1

20 August 2006

Mercury in the Environment - A Volatile Problem

Mercury levels in our environment and how to reduce these levels are an ongoing concern. Of particular concern for Americans is the level of mercury in the fish supply. Mercury is naturally occurring and is also a by-product of power generation industries, and enters the fresh water system via plant run-off, ground seepage, and acid deposition. In so doing, aquatic life forms (including, but not limited to fish, frogs, and turtles) are exposed to excessive mercury levels. When the exposed aquatic life forms are ingested by humans, and especially children and pregnant women, adverse health affects result. This paper will explore the information presented by Randall Lutter and Elisabeth Irwin in their 2002 article "Mercury in the Environment: A Volatile Problem" which was featured in the Environment the same year. The goal of this paper is to briefly review Lutter and Irwin's article and discuss information about the goals, motivations, and opinions of this paper's author regarding same. The paper begins with a review of Lutter and Irwin's article, followed by discussions of the choice of article, topics of agreement and disagreement, the most interesting aspect of the article, and finally the summary.


Lutter and Irwin's writing style contains only the necessary technical jargon which makes their article quite readable. The omission of excess technical jargon also allows for greater comprehension. Lutter and Irwin's article provides a succinct, but detailed accounting of the known origins of mercury levels in the environment, and in particular mercury levels in America. The authors provide the undisputed facts that mercury is a "naturally occurring metal" and is also introduced into the environment via anthropogenic sources, such as a by-product of power plants (26). Lutter and Irwin provide a balanced synthesized report on both sides of the mercury debate as to how mercury levels in the environment should be regulated. According to Lutter and Irwin, "the regulatory decisions to manage risks should carefully assess the costs of controls and the possible resulting improvements to human health and the environment" (26).

Reported adverse effects of mercury on children's health have induced dread and triggered several regulatory proposals based on emotion as opposed to science, according to Lutter and Irwin (29). There is considerable concern regarding the effects of mercury on the environment and human health, and strict limits have been proposed for mercury emissions as the Food and Drug Administration is under pressure to reduce permissible levels of mercury in fish sold in America. Lutter and Irwin opine that policy makers must balance the costs versus potential benefits of any proposed regulatory efforts, and assessing this balance will challenge policy-makers because of the scientific uncertainties surrounding mercury (29).

What is known about mercury and its effect on humans and the environment? Scientific research ascertained that humans significantly impact the mercury cycle (28). Mercury is a neurotoxin. Mercury pollution levels are such that there is the expectation that these mercury levels will affect human health as well as the environment. Mercury is linked to neurological impairment impacting memory, cognitive thinking, fine motor skills, language, and visual spatial skills (30).

There are many uncertainties regarding the ways mercury enters the human food chain and the resulting toxicity, so how best to reduce the risk? Lutter and Irwin do not attempt to answer this question, but rather advise that multiple factors must be considered when proposing mercury emissions regulation (33). The scale of the risk is dependent

upon the extent of exposure to mercury, and currently exposure in America appears to be relatively small.

Lutter and Irwin conclude that "survey evidence linking mercury in women's hair to their fish consumption and the exposure-response relationships from epidemiological studies indicate that the hypothetical complete elimination of mercury from fish would benefit only a relatively small number of children" (37). The authors challenge their research peers to "improve understanding of the merit of mercury controls quickly enough to help Congress and the EPA develop sensible limits for mercury emission" (37).


Why I chose this article.

I chose this article because when I was a child in the early 1970s there was monumental concern regarding mercury levels in fish and the adverse effects of mercury exposure on children. My family and I lived in a rural area less than 100 yards from the banks of one of the largest lakes in Louisiana, Caddo Lake. Fully one-third of our diet consisted of aquatic life from the lake - turtles, various fish, and frogs. Additionally, we pumped water from the lake to water garden crops, and used a deep water well to supply drinking water. Surely this well was somehow connected to the lake.

A very vivid memory from that era is Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News broadcast stating that government studies revealed dangerous levels of mercury in fish. This news prompted me to move even closer to the screen of our black-and-white television set. I waited anxiously for Cronkite to return to the screen after the commercial break. Cronkite delivered more severe sounding news about mercury, and just as I was about to run screaming through our rambling house yelling "the sky is falling," I heard Cronkite specifically name the fish most affected - swordfish. This was such a relief to a naпve child. I had never heard of swordfish, so I was relatively sure that I and most likely, my family had not eaten any. I went to school the next day and researched swordfish in the Encyclopedia Britannica and was



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