Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Mercury, Food Webs, and Marine Mammals: Implications of Diet and Climate Change for Human Health

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Mercury, Food Webs, and Marine Mammals: Implications of Diet and Climate Change for Human Health

Article excerpt

We modeled the flow of methyl mercury, a toxic global pollutant, in the Faroe Islands marine ecosystem and compared average human methyl mercury exposure from consumption of pilot whale meat and fish (cod, Gadus morhua) with current tolerable weekly intake (TWI) levels. Under present conditions and climate change scenarios, methyl mercury increased in the ecosystem, translating into increased human exposure over time. However, we saw greater changes as a result of changing fishing mortalities. A large portion of the general human population exceed the TWI levels set by the World Health Organization [WHO; 1.6 [micro]g/kg body weight (bw)], and they all exceed the reference dose (RfD) of 0.1 [micro]g/kg bw/day set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; equivalent to a TWI of 0.7 [micro]g/kg bw). As a result of an independent study documenting that Faroese children exposed prenatally to methyl mercury had reduced cognitive abilities, pregnant women have decreased their intake of whale meat and were below the TWI levels set by the WHO and the U.S. EPA. Cod had approximately 95% lower methyl mercury concentrations than did pilot whale. Thus, the high and harmful levels of methyl mercury in the diet of Faroe Islanders are driven by whale meat consumption, and the increasing impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation. Significantly, base inflow rates of mercury into the environment would need to be reduced by approximately 50% to ensure levels of intake below the WHO TWI levels, given current levels of whale consumption. Key words: climate change, Ecopath, Ecosim, Ecotracer, mercury, pollutant, trophic modeling. (2005). doi:10.1289/ehp.7603 available via[Online 2 February 2005]


Although occurring naturally [United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2002], mercury is a global pollutant and concerns public health when it is elevated above natural background levels, mainly through anthropogenic causes (Boening 2000). The cycling of mercury through the marine environment involves different chemical forms (Morel et al. 1998). In marine organisms, it is most commonly found as monomethyl mercury (C[H.sub.3][Hg.sup.+]) or as mercury ion ([Hg.sup.2+]; Downs et al. 1998; Morel et al. 1998). Generally, it is monomethyl mercury that is of concern because it bioaccumulates and biomagnifies at all trophic levels in the food web and can have severe toxicologic effects. Methyl mercury first gained notoriety in Minimata, Japan, after causing severe disabilities and death among people eating seafood contaminated through industrial mercury discharge accumulating through the food chain (Fujuki 1980).

Mercury concentrates in the marine environment, especially in deep ocean waters, which contain approximately 74% of the global total, compared with approximately 24 and 2% in the shallow part of the oceans and the atmosphere, respectively (Mason and Sheu 2002; Morel et al. 1998). A large portion of mercury in the ocean is transformed to [Hg.sup.2+] and becomes available for methylation (Fitzgerald and Mason 1997). Thus, methyl mercury concentrations are primarily a function of methylation and demethylation rates (Morel et al. 1998) and of sedimentation and food chain uptake (Fitzgerald and Mason 1997).

Methylation seems driven by biotic processes (UNEP 2002) and has been linked to sediment-bound sulfate-reducing bacteria (King et al. 2001). However, methylation is also thought to occur throughout the water column (Morel et al. 1998). Signifcant in light of global climate change, methylation rates are temperature dependent (Downs et al. 1998). Concentrations of mercury measured in the North Atlantic Ocean averaged approximately 1 pM (Mason et al. 1998; Mason R, personal communication), and usually 80-99% of mercury found in fish muscle tissue is methyl mercury, regardless of its concentration in the environment (Downs et al. 1998).

The population of the Faroe Islands (northeast Atlantic, 62[degrees]N, 7[degrees]W) relies heavily on marine resources, both for consumption and as a key economic activity. …

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