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Controlling mercury in the Arctic

A week ahead of a biennial meeting on managing the Arctic, scientists assessing pollution there say the world needs to do more to cut down on still-rising mercury emissions.

The ‘Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme’ garnered headlines (AP) by stating that mercury emissions – which globally have been fairly constant since 1990 – were on the rise and could increase by 25% by 2020. On the other hand, emissions could drop 20% (from 2005 levels) if nations such as China and India used readily available technology to scrub out mercury emissions from coal plants (the largest human source of atmospheric mercury).

The report – released at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 4-6 May – is timed neatly for the Arctic Council’s biennial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, where on 12 May ministers from eight Arctic nations discuss how to manage the region.


Levels of mercury – transported to the Arctic by air and ocean currents – are increasing in about 20% of Arctic marine species, the report says. Since mercury levels overall have not risen much since 1990, climate change might be to blame, the report suggests: it could be thawing permafrost that stores the environmental toxin, or altering the chemical balance of mercury to its more toxic form, methylmercury. (This is the neurotoxin that accumulates in food chains). A study in March 2009 found that mercury levels in the Pacific Ocean were rising, but it wasn’t clear why.

On the other hand, the report notes, there has been an overall decline in the proportion of Arctic people that exceed guidelines for mercury in blood, though it depends on where they live and whether they depend more on food from land or from marine species.

Overall, the key to controlling mercury emissions lies in the hands of nations agreeing to clean up their coal plants – which many are individually already doing. In 2009, the United Nations Environment Programme started talks for an international treaty to control mercury emissions, slated for 2013. This assessment will play into ongoing negotiations.

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