A fish dinner. Photo credit iStock. Photo credit iStock

Mercury In Our Food

Mercury in fish harvested from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is a real concern. An accumulation of toxic mercury in humans can cause damage to the brain, kidney, and lungs.

This infographic shows how mercury travels from power plants to the air and into waterways, only to contaminate plankton and fish which are then consumed by people.

Infographic shows how mercury travels from power plants to contaminate the air and water, and eventually ingested by people. Image by Jill Bevier Allen

Image by Jill Bevier Allen

Click to enlarge
  • Air pollution, primarily from power plants, is the main source of the mercury that contaminates fish in the Bay watershed.
  • Mercury travels through the atmosphere and returns to the earth through precipitation.
  • Mercury makes its way into our waterways when precipitation brings air pollution to the earth.
  • Once mercury is in the water, biological processes can trun it into a highly toxic form called methylmercury.
  • Plankton absorb methylmercury from the water and sediment.
  • Fish eat contaminated plankton and smaller fish, and the methylmercury accululates in their tissues.
  • Humans accumulate mercury in their bodies by eating contaminated fish.

In the Chesapeake watershed, mercury is responsible for more waters listed with fish consumption advisories than any other pollutant. Practical, cost-effective solutions can protect both public health and the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.

Mercury in the Environment

Mercury is a highly toxic chemical, especially to the developing nervous system, and can cause IQ deficits in children. For this reason, fetuses, infants, children, and women of childbearing age are at greatest risk.

Mercury increases in concentration as it moves up the food chain as wildlife, fish, and people consume contaminated food. For example, the amount of mercury in fish tissue can be more than a million times higher than in surrounding water.

Though mercury is a naturally occurring element, two-thirds of the mercury moving through the environment is a product of human activities. In many cases, contaminated waters are in areas considered "pristine" with very little human activity or industry.

Where Is the Mercury Coming From?

One answer is: the air. According to EPA, coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury air emissions in the U.S., accounting for more than 40 percent of the pollution. Mercury is found in coal. And when coal is burned to make electricity, mercury flows out of the smokestacks of power plants and other coal-burning sources and is washed by rain into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.

The Good News

In December 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson unveiled the nation's first air pollution standards for mercury and other chemicals emitted from power plants. The regulations were mandated by Congress in 1990, but—until now—have faced roadblocks from litigation and lobbying.

The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards will require power plants to cut mercury emissions by at least 90 percent. CBF and others sued EPA to get these rules in place. This is good news for us, the fish we eat, and the air we breathe. EPA predicts 11,000 fewer premature deaths per year and the potential for 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 new permanent jobs in the utility industry associated with the installation and maintenance of pollution controls.

Although nearly all fish and shellfish contain trace amounts of mercury, they also contain high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. So, make fish part of your healthy diet, but be conscious of your risk factors, avoid fish with higher mercury levels (like swordfish and shark), and check local advisories on fish you catch in local waters.

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