Extent of Mercury Pollution More Widespread, Report Shows

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    ST. PAUL – Mercury pollution is making its way into nearly every habitat in the United States, exposing countless species of wildlife to potentially harmful levels of mercury, a new report from the National Wildlife Federation shows.

    "This report paints a compelling picture of mercury contamination in Minnesota and nationally," says Nancy Lange, Clean Air Program Coordinator for the Izaak Walton League of America. "From walleyes to loons, eagles to otters, mercury is accumulating in nearly every corner of the food web."

    "Wildlife are truly on the front lines of the mercury problem, and this new research confirms that mercury pollution poses a severe threat to our treasured wildlife," says Catherine Bowes, manager of NWF’s Northeast mercury campaign and principal author of the report. "The discovery of mercury in so many different species is a wake-up call."

    NWF’s report, Poisoning Wildlife: The Reality of Mercury Pollution, is a compilation of more than 65 published studies finding elevated levels of mercury in a wide range of wildlife species. The report highlights mercury levels in fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians living in freshwater, marine, and forest habitats from across the country.

    The accumulation of mercury in fish has been well-understood for years, leading Minnesota and 45 others in the U.S. to issue consumption advisories warning people to limit or avoid eating certain species of fish. However, scientists have recently discovered that mercury accumulates in forest soils, indicating that wildlife that live and feed outside aquatic habitats are also at risk of exposure to mercury.

    "Scientific understanding of the extent of mercury contamination in wildlife has expanded significantly in recent years," says Dr. David Evers of the Biodiversity Research Institute, wildlife toxicologist and leading researcher in this field. "We are finding mercury accumulation in far more species, and at much higher levels, than we previously thought was occurring. This poses a very real threat to the health of many wildlife populations, some of which are highly endangered."

    "Mercury contamination is largely a consequence of our dependence on coal to produce electricity," says Lange. While Minnesota passed legislation to require the three largest coal-fired power plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 90 percent, proposals for new coal-fired power plants continue to surface across the Upper Midwest. "If built, these plants will increase our contribution to degrading the world’s climate and spew out more mercury, both of which challenge the very survival of wildlife and natural systems." Minnesota must also address mercury emissions from the taconite processing industry, a growing source of that currently emits 680 pounds of mercury each year.

    In states that have already taken action to reduce mercury pollution from major sources like waste incinerators, chlorine manufacturers, power plants, and consumer products, the results are very promising. In places where mercury emissions have been cut, such as Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, mercury levels in fish and wildlife downwind have been reduced in a matter of years, not decades, as scientists have previously thought. In Minnesota, mercury levels in fish declined 10 percent in a decade.

    "The sooner we reduce coal use and move into a modern, 21st century energy system, the sooner we can stem the flow of mercury into our environment," says Lange. "Our greenest, cleanest and cheapest source of electricity is through saving a kilowatt, not creating a new one."

    Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America is dedicated to common sense conservation that protects America’s hunting, fishing, and outdoor heritage relying on solution-oriented conservation, education, and the promotion of outdoor recreation for the benefit of our citizens. The League has more than 40,000 members and supporters in 20 state divisions and more than 300 local chapters in 32 states.

    Poisoning Wildlife: The Reality of Mercury Pollution is available at www.nwf.org/news.

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