BRI and IPEN have collaborated to conduct several global mercury studies in response to strong public interest and governmental negotiation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury — the first global treaty on the environment in well over a decade by UN Environment.
The partnership between IPEN and BRI provides a rare opportunity to compile new and standardized mercury concentrations on a global basis that reflect the potential impacts of mercury on human populations around the world.
Lead Investigator: David Evers
IPEN and BRI have collaborated on three projects focused on monitoring mercury in women of childbearing age across the globe: Mercury in Women of Childbearing Age in 25 Countries; Mercury monitoring in women of childbearing age in the Asia and the Pacific Region; and the newest study, Mercury Threat to Women & Children Across Three Oceans.
These important studies are summarized below.
This study builds upon previous mercury monitoring activities by IPEN and BRI and is focused on measuring the mercury body burden of 757 women of child-bearing age in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and SIDS-like locations in the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. SIDS-like locations are islands, often remote, where industrial development levels are low and the population relies on local fisheries as a major source of dietary protein. The data indicates that there is a serious and substantial threat to women and children’s health from mercury exposure in most of the locations where sampling took place.
Mercury in Women of Childbearing Age in 25 Countries
This project, Mercury in Women of Childbearing Age in 25 Countries, was undertaken to measure the prevalence of mercury body burden at levels that can cause neurological and organ damage. Mercury in a mother's body can be transferred to her fetus during pregnancy, exposing the developing fetus to the potent neurotoxin. The study is the first of its kind to sample as many countries and regions and spotlight women of childbearing age.
Researches form IPEN coordinated hair sampling from 1044 women of reproductive age in 37 locations across 25 countries on 6 continents. Analysis, conducted by BRI, found that 42% of women sampled had average mercury levels over the US EPA health advisory level of 1 ppm, above which brain damage, IQ loss, and kidney and cardiovascular damage may occur. The study additionally found that 53% of the global sample of women measured more than 0.58 ppm of mercury, a level associated with the onset of fetal neurological damage.
The study found significantly elevated mercury concentrations in the hair of women in numerous regions of the world related to three predominant causes of mercury pollution: coal-fired power plants (one of the main sources globally that contaminate oceans with mercury that accumulates in fish), artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) and local contaminated sites from various industries releasing mercury to soil, water, and air.
Mercury monitoring in women of childbearing age in the Asia and the Pacific Region
This study, supported by the Minamata Convention’s Interim Secretariat hosted by UN Environment, reveals that women of childbearing age living in four Pacific Island countries have elevated levels of mercury in their bodies. Mercury monitoring in women of childbearing age in the Asia and the Pacific Region, examines hair samples from women aged 18 - 44 from Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and two landlocked Asian countries, Tajikistan and Nepal.
The study found 96 percent of the women sampled from the Pacific Islands contained significantly elevated hair mercury levels. We hypothesize that the Pacific Island participants may have a higher mercury body burden than other locations due to their relatively high consumption of predatory fish species shown to have elevated mercury concentrations in previous studies.
Mercury exposure is particularly concerning for women of childbearing age as it can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and cardiovascular system. Developing organ systems, such as the foetal nervous system, are the most sensitive to the toxic effects of mercury, although nearly all organs are vulnerable.
This study underscores the importance of biomonitoring mercury pollution. Although the subjects in this study represent small selected populations, the information gained contributes to overall global information on mercury concerns. Mercury contamination is ubiquitous in marine and freshwater systems around the world. Biological mercury hotspots are globally common and are related to a variety of human activities. For these reasons, it is critical that we continue biomonitoring efforts to track potential impacts on local communities and on the environment in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the Minamata Convention.
The Global Fish and Community Mercury Monitoring Project is the first of its kind to identify, in one collaborative effort, global biological hotspots that represent elevated levels of mercury exposure that may pose serious threats to both ecosystem and human health. The report Global Mercury Hotspots: New Evidence Reveals Mercury Contamination Regularly Exceeds Health Advisory Levels in Humans and Fish Worldwide outlines the initial findings from 12 countries.
As an extension of this project, researchers published findings in the journal article, A global-scale assessment of fish mercury concentrations and the identification of biological hotspots, which was published in Science of the Total Environment in 2019.
The article presents data on a rapid assessment of fish total mercury (THg) concentrations from 40 different waterbodies in 26 countries, and provides a model for mercury monitoring in support of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
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