Mercury converted to its most toxic form in ocean waters: study

April 27, 2011

University of Alberta-led research has confirmed that a relatively harmless inorganic form of mercury found worldwide in ocean water is transformed into a potent neurotoxin in the seawater itself.

After two years of testing water samples across the Arctic Ocean, the researchers found that relatively harmless inorganic mercury, released from human activities like industry and coal burning, undergoes a process called methylation and becomes deadly monomethylmercury.

Unlike inorganic mercury, monomethylmercury is bio-accumulative, meaning its toxic effects are amplified as it progresses through the from small sea creatures to humans. The greatest exposure for humans to monomethylmercury is through seafood. The researchers believe the methylation process happens in oceans all over the world and that the conversion is carried out by microbial life forms in the .

The research team, led by recent U of A biological sciences PhD graduate Igor Lehnherr, incubated seawater samples collected from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Lehnherr says conversion of inorganic mercury to monomethylmercury accounts for approximately 50 per cent of this neurotoxin present in polar marine waters and could account for a significant amount of the mercury found in Arctic . The researchers say this is the first direct evidence that inorganic is methylated in seawater.

The research was published earlier this month online in Nature Geoscience.

Explore further: Waterborne carbon increases threat of environmental mercury

Related Stories

Why mercury is more dangerous in oceans

June 27, 2010

Even though freshwater concentrations of mercury are far greater than those found in seawater, it's the saltwater fish like tuna, mackerel and shark that end up posing a more serious health threat to humans who eat them.

Arctic home to mysterious mercury deposits

February 1, 2011

More mercury is deposited in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet. Norwegian NTNU researchers think one explanation for this may lie in the meteorological conditions in the Arctic spring and summer.

Recommended for you

Study calculates the speed of ice formation

August 3, 2015

Researchers at Princeton University have for the first time directly calculated the rate at which water crystallizes into ice in a realistic computer model of water molecules. The simulations, which were carried out on supercomputers, ...

'Snowball earth' might be slushy

August 3, 2015

Imagine a world without liquid water—just solid ice in all directions. It would certainly not be a place that most life forms would like to live.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Vendicar_Decarian
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2011
These oceans are causing no end of problems. I am afraid we will have to rid ourselves of them.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.