Mercury and Methylmercury stand as two of the most dangerous pollutants in the natural world.
These two metals can be especially harmful to oceanic life and water quality, as mercury levels are ever-rising in our industrial world.
So how exactly does mercury affect oceans and ocean life?
The answer is multi-faceted and complex.
What Makes Mercury so Concerning?
Mercury (not to be confused with the planet in our solar system) is a naturally occurring metal that can be extracted from the cinnabar mineral.
Mercury can be released into the ocean and atmosphere from volcanic activity, but more frequently as a result of human activities, especially when we use coal-powered energy sources and industrial waste disposals.
This metal is extremely poisonous, affecting nearly all living things if they come into contact with it, while also being notoriously difficult to remove.
In the case of aquatic life in particular, the mercury derivative methylmercury (HeMg) poses a significant threat to health.
Methylmercury, a biological toxin, seeps into soil and aquatic environments from remnants of mercury that are able to be broken down by microorganisms. This can be deadly for plant life and sea life in particular.
Mercury can enter the food chain, which is bad for creatures that prey at the top, as each successive species on the food chain consumes increasingly more mercury than the last.
It also presents a danger to humans who consume seafood, as over 66% of global seafood consumption comes from oceans with high levels of mercury.
The fact that mercury can affect humankind just as gravely as sea life should be alarming to everyone, and the issue of mercury contamination should take center stage.
How Much Mercury is in Our Oceans?
The estimate for Mercury content in our oceans is projected to be somewhere between 80,000 and 450,000 metric tons, with two-thirds of that amount in shallower waters.
This means fish populations are at a more heightened risk than other species to suffer from the effects of exposure to mercury.
So dangerous is mercury contamination that oceans can act as “storage closets” for the metal, because metals aren’t soluble in water (similar to how oil and water don’t mix).
The staggering amount of mercury in our oceans has consequences that extend far beyond the scope of our imaginations.
How Can We Prevent Further Mercury Contamination?
To “clean up” all the mercury present in our oceans would be an arduous task for anyone to complete.
After all, there’s so much of it that it would seem to be nearly impossible to collect every bit of mercury that remains in the water.
However, scientists have developed some technologies that can assist in detecting and absorbing mercury, such as synthetic corals.
Corals can actually absorb decent amounts of metal ions, which gives researchers hope that creating synthetic corals can help speed up the process for reducing mercury contamination in the oceans.
However, these technologies alone won’t be enough to rid our oceans of this dangerous pollutant.
Humans will also have to start utilizing more clean energy sources and lessening use of coal power.
Additionally, humans should use less products with high mercury content in them, like light bulbs, batteries and thermometers. Instead, we can buy mercury-less alternatives of those products to do our part.
Mercury Contamination in the Ocean: Wrap-Up
Mercury contamination in the oceans is one of the major environmental concerns of our time.
Failure to take swift action on this issue could lead to some startling long term consequences for the future of our planet and our marine ecosystem in particular.
Mercury is a metal that can affect every walk of life, so there is a need for emphasis and response from everyone to start reversing mercury’s harmful effects.
Luckily, there is hope for us and for the whole of aquatic life if we’re able to combine new innovations in mercury clean-up technology with a lessening reliance on coal power and resorting to products with less mercury in them.
Though clean-up and conservancy efforts around mercury and its elimination could take years, the time and resources invested right now could have the chance to benefit us all greatly down the road.