Toxic mercury, accumulating in the arctic, springs from a hidden source

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Harvard study finds circumpolar rivers most responsible for high levels of mercury in the Arctic

For immediate release: Monday, May 21, 2012

Boston, MA — Environmental scientists at Harvard have discovered that the Arctic accumulation of mercury, a toxic element, is caused by both atmospheric forces and the flow of circumpolar rivers that carry the element north into the Arctic Ocean.

While the atmospheric source was previously recognized, it now appears that twice as much mercury actually comes from the rivers.

The revelation implies that concentrations of the toxin may further increase as climate change continues to modify the region’s hydrological cycle and release mercury from warming Arctic soils.

“The Arctic is a unique environment because it’s so remote from most anthropogenic (human-influenced) sources of mercury, yet we know that the concentrations of mercury in Arctic marine mammals are among the highest in the world,” says lead author Jenny A. Fisher, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS). “This is dangerous to both marine life and humans. The question from a scientific standpoint is, where does that mercury come from?”

The results of the study, which was led jointly by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), have been published in the journal Nature Geoscience on May 20.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that has been enriched in the environment by human activities such as coal combustion and mining. When converted to methylmercury by microbial processes in the ocean, it can accumulate in fish and wildlife at concentrations up to a million times higher than the levels found in the environment.

“In humans, mercury is a potent neurotoxin,” explains co-principal investigator [[Elsie Sunderland]], Mark and Catherine Winkler Assistant Professor of Aquatic Science at HSPH. “It can cause long-term developmental delays in exposed children and impair cardiovascular health in adults.”

Mercury is considered a persistent bioaccumulative toxin because it remains in the environment without breaking down; as it travels up the food chain, from plankton to fish, to marine mammals and humans, it becomes more concentrated and more dangerous.

“Indigenous people in the Arctic are particularly susceptible to the effects of methylmercury exposure because they consume large amounts of fish and marine mammals as part of their traditional diet,” Sunderland says. “Understanding the sources of mercury to the Arctic Ocean and how these levels are expected to change in the future is therefore key to protecting the health of northern populations.”

Sunderland supervised the study with Daniel Jacob, Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at SEAS, where Sunderland is also an affiliate.

Mercury enters the Earth’s atmosphere through emissions from coal combustion, waste incineration, and mining. Once airborne, it can drift in the atmosphere for up to a year, until chemical processes make it soluble and it falls back to the ground in rain or snow. This deposition is spread worldwide, and much of the mercury deposited to Arctic snow and ice is re-emitted to the atmosphere, which limits the impact on the Arctic Ocean.

“That’s why these river sources are so important,” says Fisher. “The mercury is going straight into the ocean.”

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Flint’s water crisis ‘infuriating’ given knowledge about lead poisoning

 

big-3-grandjean-470x313January 26, 2016 — Harvard Chan School’s Philippe Grandjean, an expert in how environmental pollution impairs brain development, says that Flint, Michigan’s water crisis could have been prevented, given the United States’ long experience with lead contamination—and how to prevent it.

Flint, Michigan temporarily switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 to cut costs. Should officials have known that lead contamination would result?

Yes. We are dealing an ancient problem. Lead, a malleable and inexpensive metal, has been used for water pipes since the Roman period. It’s been known since then that toxic amounts of lead from these pipes could be released into soft water. This can occur because lead can be dissolved by weak acids found in many water supplies.

The solution was well known, either the lead pipes had to be removed or water quality had to be changed. Replacing the pipes can be very costly, especially if their locations are no longer known, so adding lime and other corrosion inhibitors to community water has often been used as a remedy.

Even with these known problems, it was only a few decades ago that plumbing codes were changed to require water pipes be made of materials other than lead. So today, a substantial number of service lines, distribution lines, and household water pipes in American communities are made of lead.

Flint is by far not the first community where lead poisoning has emerged as a “new” problem. Fifteen years ago, Washington, D.C. changed the disinfection chemical for the municipal water supply from chlorine to chloramine, which caused lead to leach from the water pipes, and the problem was not corrected until three years later. More recently, similar problems have occurred both in North Carolina and in Maine. In all of these cases, the problems could have been foreseen, but decisions on water treatment were primarily made based on considerations of cost and feasibility. Last week it was reported that tap water in Sebring, Ohio had elevated levels of lead. It’s just another example that ancient water pipes made from lead will continue to cause problems.

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Sugar Industry downplayed Heart risk of sugar

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In the 1960’s, before conflict of interest disclosure was required, the sugar industry sponsored research promoting dietary fat as an important cause of coronary heart disease, and downplaying the role of sugar, according to a special report in JAMA Internal Medicine.

A 1967 literature review in The New England Journal of Medicine pointed to fat and cholesterol as the dietary culprits of heart disease, glossing over evidence from the 1950s that sugar was also linked to heart disease. According to the new report, the NEJM review was sponsored by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), which is today the Sugar Association, although its role was not disclosed at the time.

In the report, Laura A. Schmidt of the University of California, San Francisco and colleagues point out that Harvard professor of nutrition Dr. Mark Hegsted co-directed the SRF’s first heart disease research project from 1965 to 1966. Schmidt and colleagues say communications between the SRF, Hegsted and another professor, Roger Adams, uncovered from the University of Illinois archives and the Harvard Medical Library reveal that the foundation set the objective for the literature review, funded it and reviewed drafts of the manuscript.s

“I thought I had seen everything but this one floored me,” said Marion Nestle of New York University, who wrote an editorial on the new findings. “It was so blatant. And the ‘bribe’ was so big.”

“Funding research is ethical,” Nestle told Reuters Health by email. “Bribing researchers to produce the evidence you want is not.”

The researchers also reviewed symposium proceedings and historical reports. In 1954, they say, foundation president Henry Haas gave a speech highlighting the potential of reducing American fat intake and recapturing those calories as carbohydrates that would increase the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third.

In 1962, an American Medical Association nutrition report indicated that low-fat high-sugar diets may actually encourage the development of cholesterol. Two years later, according to the new report, SRF vice president John Hickson proposed that the SRF embark on a major program to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar.”

Increasingly, epidemiological reports suggested that blood sugar, rather than blood cholesterol or high blood pressure, was a better predictor of plaque buildup in the arteries. Two days after The New York Herald Tribune ran a full page story on the link to sugar in July 1965, the SRF approved “Project 226,” a literature review on cholesterol metabolism to be led by Hegsted and, among others, Fredrick Stare, another Harvard nutritionist with industry financial ties.

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