Magazine article Science News

When the Mercury Falls: Autumn Leaves Taint River with Poison

Magazine article Science News

When the Mercury Falls: Autumn Leaves Taint River with Poison

Article excerpt

Fall leaves that drop into stagnant waterways could release significant doses of a highly toxic form of mercury, new research suggests.

Mercury-tainted fish pose a considerable health risk to people (SN: 3/9//91, p. 152). Before the metal can enter the aquatic food chain, however, it must be converted from its common, inorganic form into the organic compound methylmercury. That process, promoted by bacteria, occurs readily in wetlands, which are rich in organic matter but oxygen-deprived, and landfills (SN: 7//7//01, p. 4).

Leaf-littered waterways represent another source of methylmercury, according to the new study. For 9 months during 2000, Steven J. Balogh and his colleagues at Metropolitan Council Environmental Services in St. Paul, Minn., monitored concentrations of mercury and methylmercury at sites on two southern Minnesota waterways, the Little Cobb River and County Ditch 86. These waters feed into a tributary of the Minnesota River and eventually join the Mississippi.

Overall concentrations of mercury were highest in May and June, when spring melt and rains washed sediments into the rising waters. Methylmercury concentrations, however, remained low at that time, suggesting that most of the mercury flushed into the waters was in the inorganic form.

The largest spike in methylmercury along the Little Cobb River occurred late in the fall, during a dry period when the river was usually stagnant. There, in early November, the researchers found as much as 4.9 nanograms of methylmercury per liter of water. …

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