Dispersal of mercury into the air has risen substantially since the industrial revolution, leading to increased mercury deposits in water and soil. Once there, it gets transformed by bacteria into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of the naturally-occurring heavy metal that can affect neurological and immune systems. Stored in the tissues of wildlife and humans, methylmercury concentrations are magnified with each step up the food chain. The mercury levels of a large predator fish such as trout, for example, may be more than one million times that of ambient water, potentially causing serious health consequences for human and wildlife consumers.
Much of the mercury pollution attributable to human activity is produced by coal-fired power plants and small-scale gold mining, with communities dependent on fishing and mining being among the hardest hit. In recent years, rising concerns about adverse consequences of mercury emissions have led to a number of new emissions-reduction policies. But just how effective are these policies?
For the past six years, MIT Joint Program research assistant Amanda Giang has been working to assess the environmental, public health, and economic impacts of mercury pollution and the efficacy of policies designed to reduce them. Toward that end, she has taken both a qualitative and quantitative approach. Drawing on input from stakeholders ranging from citizens in affected communities to domestic regulators and international negotiators, Giang has developed integrated assessment models that trace the path of mercury from emissions sources to polluted watersheds to impacted consumers. Using those models, she has estimated the amounts of future mercury emissions that various policies would likely avoid, and the environmental, health, and economic gains that would result.
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Image source: Justin Knight