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New York State Mercury Connections
New York State Mercury Connections

The Extent and Effects of Mercury Pollution in New York State

In 1969, New York State was at the forefront of the burgeoning environmental movement. This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of mercury monitoring in the State. To inform policy efforts and to advance public understanding, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) sponsored a scientific synthesis of information on mercury in air, water, fish, and wildlife. 

As a result of this collaboration, 26 papers have been submitted for publication in a special issue of the journal Ecotoxicology, and are summarized for use by decision makers and the public in our new publication, New York State Mercury Connections.

Background

New York State enjoys an abundance of natural resources, from extensive forested areas—including the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, and the Allegany Plateau—to important aquatic and fisheries resources. New York’s aquatic assets include portions of two Great Lakes, hundreds of inland lakes, and significant marine coastal areas. Many habitats and, ultimately, ecosystems in New York State are sensitive to mercury input, which can enhance transport, methylation, and exposure to fish, wildlife, and humans.

In 2018, NYSERDA sponsored a scientific synthesis of information on mercury in air, water, fish and wildlife, bringing together over 80 individual researchers from 10 different institutions, representing academia, NGO's, and government agencies. The culmination of this synthesis is the planned publication of a special issue of Ecotoxicology featuring topical papers focused on spaciotemporal patterns of mercury in New York and risk to ecosystem and human health (currently, 26 papers have been submitted for peer-review).

 
In addition to these topical papers, researchers are actively working on a broader-scale paper to be submitted to Science of the Total Environment, "Distribution and trends of mercury in aquatic and terrestrial biota of New York State: a synthesis of 50 years of research and monitoring." This "synthesis paper" uses the entire New York mercury dataset (n = 70,611 Hg data points with 47,363 biotic data points) compiled from all collaborators.
 
Key findings from this massive research effort are listed below, and are summarized in more detail in our 41-page science communications booklet, New York State Mercury Connections: the Extent and Effects of Mercury Pollution in the State.

Major Findings and Implications

Five major findings emerge from the results of the scientific synthesis of mercury in New York State:

1. New York State features natural areas that are ecologically, culturally, and economically significant but widely contaminated with mercury largely due to atmospheric emissions and deposition.

2. The scope and intensity of the impact of mercury on fish and wildlife in New York State is much greater than previously recognized. Mercury concentrations exceed human and ecological risk thresholds in many areas, particularly in inland waters.

3. The Adirondacks, Catskills, and parts of Long Island are sensitive to mercury pollution. The impact of mercury emissions and deposition is exacerbated by landscape characteristics. Abundant forests facilitate mercury deposition. Wetlands enhance transport, methylation, and uptake leading to elevated concentrations in aquatic and terrestrial food webs.

4. Mercury concentrations in the environment of New York State have declined over the last four decades, concurrent with decreased air emissions from regional and U.S. sources. After initial declines, however, concentrations of mercury in some fishes and birds from certain locations have stabilized or even increased in recent years—revealing how trajectories of mercury recovery can be complex.

5. While the timing and magnitude of the response will vary, further controls on mercury emission sources are expected to continue to lower mercury concentrations in the food web yielding multiple benefits to fish, wildlife, and people of New York State. It is anticipated that improvements will be greatest for inland lakes and will be roughly proportional to declines in mercury deposition.

Efforts to advance recovery from mercury pollution in New York State in recent years have yielded significant progress, but have yet to address the full scope of the problem. The findings from this scientific synthesis indicate that: (1) mercury remains a pollutant of major concern; (2) the extent and intensity of the contamination is greater than previously recognized; and (3) after decades of declining mercury emissions, trends in mercury concentrations in fish and wildlife have stabilized or are increasing in some species in particular areas.

While the reasons behind these shifting trends require further study, they also underscore the need to continue and even expand existing monitoring efforts by NYSERDA and other entities to better track progress. This is particularly important as new pollution mitigation measures are implemented, as global sources increase, and as the region faces changing environmental conditions.

Science to Policy

In May 2019, BRI and collaborators from Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF presented findings from the New York State Mercury Connections synthesis during briefings to the EPA as well as Senate and House legislators in Washington D.C. These briefings will help to inform policymakers' decisions regarding a proposed rollback of the Mercury Air Toxics Standards rule, a policy change which could result in lifting limits on mercury emissions. To learn more, download the full Mercury Connections summary booklet, and read our collaborative comment letter and science brief regarding the proposed MATS rollback below.

New York State Mercury Connections
MATS Comment Letter to the EPA 

Mercury Matters 2018: A Science Brief for Journalists and Policymakers
IRIS Methylmercury Reference Dose Comment Letter

Above: Molly Taylor, Nick Fisher, and David Evers are ready for briefings in Washington, D.C., June 18, 2019.

 

Publications

Publications

Science Communicaitons:

New York State Mercury Connections: the Extent and Effects of Mercury Pollution in the State

Primary Literature:

Ecotoxicology submissions are currently in review and will be posted here once made final.

Project Collaborators

Biodiversity Research Institute
Evan Adams, Mark Burton, Chris DeSorbo, David Evers, Julia Gulka, Oksana Lane, Amy Sauer 

NYSERDA
Diane Bertok

Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation
Valerie Buxton, Nina Schoch

Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Lisa Cleckner

Harvard University
Marie Perkins

New York Department of Conservation
Wayne Richter

Syracuse University
Charles Driscoll, Geoffrey Millard

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Huiting Mao, Roxanne Razavi, Yang Yang

Stony Brook University
Nicholas Fisher

U.S. Geological Survey
Douglas Burns, Karen Riva Murray

 
Photo Credits: Header, Grindstone NY © BRI-Jonathan Fiely
Biodiversity Research Institute