Global scientists unite to sound alarm on mercury consumption

Pollution by the element is especially relevant to Utah, where high levels have been found
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Scientists have united to declare that mercury poses a serious threat to people, fish and wildlife worldwide.

The "Madison Declaration on Mercury Pollution" was developed last summer by scientists who study the atmosphere, water, the environment and human health and published Thursday in Ambio, the journal published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The so-called Madison Declaration concludes that policymakers should begin developing controls so the problems do not get worse.

Paul Jakus, a Utah State University environmental economist, participated in the international conference where the science on mercury was sized up and helped develop the declaration. He says solving the global mercury problem may well be like the global treaty that now protects the Earth's important ozone layer from damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

"We can get together and come up with good policies that might have a chance solving the problems," Jakus said.

Mercury pollution is of particular concern in Utah, where some of the highest levels of toxic methylmercury in the nation have been found in the Great Salt Lake and where mercury advisories have been issued for four duck species and four sportfish populations. More consumption advisories are expected in coming months.

Environmental scientists, regulators, environmental advocates, hunters and fishers have been meeting in the Statewide Mercury Work Group to develop a strategy for tackling the state's mercury problem. In addition, state regulators have cracked down on mercury emissions from incinerators, established a "bounty" on mercury switches and offered a statewide mercury collection program.

Cheryl Heying, an air-quality specialist who works on mercury, said the report says nothing new.

"It confirms that the state of Utah, in moving forward to reduce mercury, is doing the right thing," she said.

Jakus, whose work includes studies of how fish consumption advisories affect the economy, agreed there is more work to be done to understand the threats posed by mercury. But he added that mercury does not recognize the borders of states and nations, so the effort to curb mercury pollution will need to be international, too.

"If you are an angler or a hunter, you are affected by emissions that are coming from elsewhere," Jakus said. "We need to think beyond borders."

Findings of scientists

A group of international scientists issued findings this week on mercury pollution. They include:

* 1. On average, three times more mercury now falls from the sky than before the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.

* 2. Increasing mercury emissions from developing countries have offset declining emissions from developed nations during the past 30 years.

* 3. Methylmercury exposure at present levels constitutes a public health problem in many parts of the world.

* 4. Methylmercury exposure may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly in adult men.

* 5. The health risks posed by mercury contamination of fish warrant issuing a worldwide warning to the public, especially children and women of childbearing age, to be careful about how much and which fish they eat.

* 6. The actual socioeconomic costs of mercury pollution are probably much greater than estimated because existing economic analyses don't consider mercury's impacts on ecosystems and wildlife.

* 7. The unregulated use of mercury in small-scale gold mining is polluting thousands of sites around the world, posing long-term health risks to an estimated 50 million people and contributing more than 10 percent of the mercury in Earth's atmosphere attributable to human activities.