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Mercury pollution in the ocean

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Mercury pollution in the ocean

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal which cycles through atmosphere, water, and soil in various forms to different parts of the world. Due to this natural cycle, irrespective of which part of the world releases mercury it could affect an entirely different part of the world making mercury pollution a global concern. Mercury pollution is now identified as a global problem and awareness has been raised on an international action plan to minimize anthropogenic mercury emissions and clean up mercury pollution. In Global Mercury Assessment - 2002 concluded that, International actions to address the global mercury problem should not be delayed”. Among many environments that are under the impact of mercury pollution, the ocean is one which cannot be neglected as it has the ability to act as a “storage closet” for mercury. According to a recent model study the total anthropogenic mercury released into the ocean is estimated to be around 80,000 to 45,000 metric tons and two thirds of this enormous amount is estimated to be found in waters shallower than 1000m level where many consumable fish live. Mercury can get bio-accumulated in marine food chains in the form of highly toxic methyl mercury which can cause health risks to human seafood consumers. According to statistics, about 66% of the global fish consumption comes from ocean. Therefore, it is important to monitor and regulate oceanic mercury levels to prevent more and more mercury reaching human population through seafood consumption.



Reduction and oxidation of mercury mostly occur closer to the ocean water surface. These are either driven by sunlight or by microbial activity. Under UV radiation, elemental mercury oxidizes and dissolves directly in ocean water or binds to other particles. The reverse reaction reduces some mercury Hg2+ to elemental mercury Hg(0) and returns to the atmosphere. Fine aerosols in the atmosphere such as ocean water droplets can act as small reaction chambers in this process providing the special reaction conditions required. Oxidation and reduction of mercury in the ocean are not very simple reversible reactions. Shown below is the proposed pathway of ocean aerosol mercuric photochemistry suggesting that it occurs through a reactive intermediate:

Photo oxidation is suspected to be driven by OH. radical and reduction is driven by wind and surface layer disturbances. In the dark, mercury redox reactions continue due to microbial activity. The biological transformations are different and have a smaller rate compared to sunlight driven processes above. Inorganic mercury Hg2+ and methyl mercury has the ability to get adsorbed in to particles. A positive correlation of binding is observed for the amount of organic matter vs. the concentration of these mercury species showing that most of them bind to organic matter. This phenomena can determine the bioavailability and toxicity of mercury in the ocean. Some methyl mercury is released to the ocean through river run-off. However, most of the methyl mercury found in the ocean is produced in –situ (inside the ocean itself). Methylation of inorganic mercury can occur via biotic and abiotic pathways. However, biotic pathways are more predominant. The reactions illustrated in a simplified scheme below are actually parts of complex enzyme driven metabolic pathways taking place inside microbial cells.

In abiotic reactions, humic substances act as methylating agents and therefore this process occur at shallow sea levels where decomposing organic matter is available to combine with inorganic mercury Hg2+.9 Interestingly, mercury methylation studies in Polar Regions have also shown a positive correlation between methylation and chlorophyll content in water showing there could also be biogenic pathways for methyl mercury production. Produced methyl mercury gets accumulated in microbes. Due to the high permeability and absence of degradation for methyl mercury in other species that depend on those microbes, this very toxic compound gets biomagnified through marine food chains to the top predators. Human population consumes many types of marine fish who are top predators in the food chains which puts their health in great danger. Therefore, finding possible solutions to minimize further mercury emissions and cleaning up the already existing mercury pollution is extremely important.

Prevention and remedy

Cleaning up the existing mercury pollution could be a tedious process. Nevertheless, there is some promising ongoing research bringing hope to the challenging task. One such research is based nanotechnology. It uses synthesized aluminum oxide nanoparticles (Al2O3) mimicking the coral structures. These structures absorb heavy metal toxins effectively due to high surface/volume ratio and the quality of surface. In nature, it has been long observed corals can absorb heavy metal ions due to its surface structure and this new technique has used to nanotechnology to create “synthetic corals” which may help clean mercury in the ocean. The reactions involved in synthesizing this material are;

Another novel material (Patent application: PCT/US15/55205) is still under investigation which looks at the possibility of cleaning mercury pollution using orange peels as raw material. This technology produces sulfur limonene polysulphide (proposed material) using sulfur and limonene. Using industrial byproducts to manufacture this polymer makes it a highly sustainable approach.The scientists say 50% of the mercury content could be reduced with a single treatment using this polymer.

In addition to the cleaning processes, minimizing usage of coal power and shifting to cleaner energy sources, reducing small scale artisanal gold mining, proper treatment of industrial mercury waste, and implementation of policies are sound approaches to reduce mercury emissions in the long term-large scale plan. Public awareness is critical in achieving this goal. Proper disposal of mercury containing items such as medicinal packaging and thermometers, using mercury-free bulbs and batteries, buying consumer products with zero or minimum mercury emission to the environment can make a significant difference in recovering world’s ecosystems from mercury pollution leaving minimum legacy of mercury pollution in the ocean for our future generations.


Mercury pollution in the ocean Wikipedia

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