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Mercury Toxicology

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Toxicology Report: Mercury
Carmen Polat
Centenary College
BIO110 - Principles of Environmental Science
Professor Debra DeAngelis
April 7th, 2016

Every day in our lives we encounter numerous toxins. While some can be avoided, others cannot. Toxins are abundant in our environment, and there is no way to escape all of them. Some of them come from spills or accidents, some from permitted pollution, and others from everyday activities that build up toxins in the environment. This paper examines how mercury contamination, found here in New Jersey, affects the people, animals, and environment of New Jersey. Mercury is a highly toxic metal element, labeled with the atomic symbol Hg. It was known to humans thousands of years ago, and is the only metal that can be found in liquid form at room temperature (Live Science, 2016). While beautiful to look at, it is best to avoid touching it, since it is extremely toxic even in very small doses. Mercury damages the immune system, nervous system, reproductive system, and alters genetic and enzyme systems, as well as causing deformities and birth defects (USGS, 2009). It has also been found to cause autoimmune problems, and high exposures will lead to death through multi-organ failure (Azevedo, 2012). This occurs not only in humans, but also in fish and other animals that are exposed to the element. It can enter the body through wounds, inhalation, and ingestion (Live Science, 2016). One of the largest problems with mercury is that it stays within the body and then moves up the food chain through bioaccumulation. Elemental mercury is converted into methylmercury by bacteria in ocean water, and is later ingested by fish (Live Science, 2016). The fish is eaten by a bigger fish, and that fish is subsequently eaten by another bigger fish, which is then eaten by another fish, an animal such as a bear or raccoon, or a human. Each organism is absorbing the mercury of the organism it ate, which can lead to an accumulation of mercury in the body. Organisms at the top of the food chain tend to have the highest levels of mercury present in their bodies. Contamination also occurs at the lowest trophic levels, as plants absorb mercury that has contaminated soils (Azevedo, 2012). Land-dwelling animals that consume these plants will pass the contamination up the food chain as they are eaten. Although higher concentrations are more dangerous, even small concentrations can have profound impact on the organism. In plants, photosynthesis, transpiration, water uptake, and chlorophyll synthesis can all be reduced (Azevedo, 2012). Fish tend to have difficulty with reproduction when exposed, birds lay fewer eggs and can’t properly care for their young, and mammals have impaired motor skills (National Wildlife Federation, 2016). It can also cause young to be born or hatched malformed, and cause tumors and cancers in all ages. In New Jersey, it is believed that much of the mercury contamination comes from air pollution (NJDEP, 2013). Air deposition occurs when the mercury settles on land, contaminating the soils. Water contamination occurs both from air deposition, and from storm water run-off that washes the mercury from land into the rivers and lakes. The air pollution is believed to come from long range sources such as China, as well as local coal-burning plants and incinerators.
Contamination also comes from other sources, such as the grounds of industrial companies. One of these such companies is DuPont, who operated on a 570 acre facility in Pompton Lakes, NJ from 1902-1994. In addition to mercury contamination at the site, they are also responsible for numerous other toxic contaminants in the environment including lead, explosive powders, chlorinated solvents, and more (EPA, 2016). The pollution is a result of poor waste management practices, and affects land, water, and vapors in the air. Policies/laws for protection There are multiple regulations that address mercury pollution. Some of them are mercury specific, while others target many toxic pollutants. The environmental laws include: the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008, Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1998, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Safe Water Drinking Act (EPA, 2016).
New Jersey has also enacted policies to protect people and the environment from mercury exposure. In the early 1990’s, the Mercury Task Force was created, which reduced mercury emissions from incinerators by up to ninety percent (NJDEP, 2013). Since the 1990’s emissions have been reduced even further by this task group. The state has also issued consumption advisories for certain types of fish that contain higher levels of mercury.
Exposure to mercury can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly. The consequences of exposure in our environment also have lasting impacts. It’s important that people are aware of the problems associated with mercury, and try to limit exposure as much as possible.

Azevedo, R. R. (2012). Phytotoxicity of Mercury. Journal of Botany, 1-6.
EPA. (2016, April 20). DuPont/Pompton Lakes Works. Retrieved from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
EPA. (2016, March 28). Environmental Laws That Apply to Mercury . Retrieved from United States Environmental Protection Agency:
Live Science. (2016). Facts About Mercury (Hg). Retrieved from Live Science:
National Wildlife Federation. (2016). Mercury Pollution. Retrieved from National Wildlife Federation:
NJDEP. (2013, March). Mercury Emissions. Retrieved from New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:
USGS. (2009, February 19). Mercury in the Environment. Retrieved from U.S. Geological Survey:

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