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Isolation of methylmercury using distillation and anion-exchange chromatography for isotopic analyses in natural matrices

December 13, 2019

The development of mercury (Hg) stable isotope measurements has enhanced the study of Hg sources and transformations in the environment. As a result of the mixing of inorganic Hg (iHg) and methylmercury (MeHg) species within organisms of the aquatic food web, understanding species-specific Hg stable isotopic compositions is of significant importance. The lack of MeHg isotope measurements is due to the analytical difficulty in the separation of the MeHg from the total Hg pool, with only a few methods having been tested over the past decade with varying degrees of success, and only a handful of environmentally relevant measurements. Here, we present a novel anion-exchange resin separation method using AG 1-X4 that further isolates MeHg from the sample matrix, following a distillation pretreatment, in order to obtain ambient MeHg stable isotopic compositions. This method avoids the use of organic reagents, does not require complex instrumentation, and is applicable across matrices. Separation tests across sediment, water, and biotic matrices showed acceptable recoveries (98 ± 5%, n = 54) and reproducible δ202Hg isotope results (2 SDs ≤ 0.15‰) down to 5 ng of MeHg. The measured MeHg pools in natural matrices, such as plankton and sediments, showed large deviations from the non-speciated total Hg measurement, indicating that there is an important isotopic shift during methylation that is not recorded by typical measurements, but is vital in order to assess sources of Hg during bioaccumulation.