Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Compilation of mercury data and associated risk to human and ecosystem health, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Wisconsin

December 3, 2020

Mercury is an environmentally ubiquitous neurotoxin, and its methylated form presents health risks to humans and other biota, primarily through dietary intake. Because methylmercury bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in living tissue, concentrations progressively increase at higher trophic positions in ecosystem food webs. Therefore, the greatest health risks are for organisms at the highest trophic positions and for humans who consume organisms such as fish from these high trophic positions. Data on environmental mercury concentrations in various media and biota provide a basis for comparison among sites and regions and for evaluating ecosystem health risks. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Natural Resources Department, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have compiled a dataset from analyses of mercury concentrations in surface water, bed sediment, fish tissue, Rana clamitans (green frog) tissue, Haliaeetus leucocephalus (bald eagle) feathers, Lontra canadensis (North American river otter) hair, Zizania palustris (northern wild rice), and litterfall from samples collected in the Bad River watershed, Wisconsin during 2004–18. These data originated from either the Natural Resources Department or another agency based on samples collected within or near to Bad River Tribal lands before transfer to the U.S. Geological Survey for compilation and analysis at the onset of the project. This report describes the compiled mercury dataset, provides comparisons to similar measurements in the region and elsewhere, and evaluates health risks to humans and to the sampled biota. Except for litterfall, data were not collected on a consistent, regular basis over a sufficient period to evaluate temporal patterns. The reported mercury concentrations are generally similar to those reported elsewhere in the upper Great Lakes region. Reported values are consistent with atmospheric deposition as the principal source and reflect a favorable environment for mercury methylation. Fish mercury concentrations increased at higher food web positions and generally increased with length in most species measured. Sander vitreus (walleye) present the greatest risk to humans among fishes considered here because of their high trophic position and associated elevated mercury concentrations in combination with relatively high walleye consumption rates by the Native American community. Methylmercury concentrations in wild rice are generally low and likely pose little health risk. Despite reports of declining atmospheric mercury deposition across eastern North America during the past decade, a downward trend in litterfall mercury deposition was not evident in samples collected during 2012–18. Limitations in this data compilation and analysis were noted due to missing information such as collection dates and site locations for some samples. Regular monitoring of mercury in litterfall and surface waters along with periodic collection of fish would enable evaluation of temporal change in the mercury cycle that might affect future risk to humans and aquatic ecosystem inhabitants.

Related Content