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A synthesis of patterns of environmental mercury inputs, exposure and effects in New York State

November 10, 2020

Mercury (Hg) pollution is an environmental problem that adversely affects human and ecosystem health at local, regional, and global scales—including within New York State. More than two-thirds of the Hg currently released to the environment originates, either directly or indirectly, from human activities. Since the early 1800s, global atmospheric Hg concentrations have increased by three- to eight-fold over natural levels. In the U.S., atmospheric emissions and point-source releases to waterways increased following industrialization into the mid-1980s. Since then, water discharges have largely been curtailed. As a result, Hg emissions, atmospheric concentrations, and deposition over the past few decades have declined across the eastern U.S. Despite these decreases, Hg pollution persists. To inform policy efforts and to advance public understanding, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) sponsored a scientific synthesis of information on Hg in New York State. This effort includes 23 papers focused on Hg in atmospheric deposition, water, fish, and wildlife published in Ecotoxicology. New York State experiences Hg contamination largely due to atmospheric deposition. Some landscapes are inherently sensitive to Hg inputs driven by the transport of inorganic Hg to zones of methylation, the conversion of inorganic Hg to methylmercury, and the bioaccumulation and biomagnification along food webs. Mercury concentrations exceed human and ecological risk thresholds in many areas of New York State, particularly the Adirondacks, Catskills, and parts of Long Island. Mercury concentrations in some biota have declined in the Eastern Great Lakes Lowlands and the Northeastern Highlands over the last four decades, concurrent with decreases in water releases and air emissions from regional and U.S. sources. However, widespread changes have not occurred in other ecoregions of New York State. While the timing and magnitude of the response of Hg levels in biota varies, policies expected to further diminish Hg emissions should continue to decrease Hg concentrations in food webs, yielding benefits to the fish, wildlife, and people of New York State. Anticipated improvements in the Hg status of aquatic ecosystems are likely to be greatest for inland surface waters and should be roughly proportional to declines in atmospheric Hg deposition. Efforts that advance recovery from Hg pollution in recent years have yielded significant progress, but Hg remains a pollutant of concern. Indeed, due to this extensive compilation of Hg observations in biota, it appears that the extent and intensity of the contamination on the New York landscape and waterscape is greater than previously recognized. Understanding the extent of Hg contamination and recovery following decreases in atmospheric Hg deposition will require further study, underscoring the need to continue existing monitoring efforts.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title A synthesis of patterns of environmental mercury inputs, exposure and effects in New York State
DOI 10.1007/s10646-020-02291-4
Authors David C. Evers, Amy K. Sauer, Douglas A. Burns, Nicholas S Fisher, Diane Bertok, Evan M. Adams, Mark E H Burton, Charles T. Driscoll
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecotoxicology
Series Number
Index ID 70217232
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New York Water Science Center

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