A new study finds mercury toxicity in seabirds on the rise

A new study released by UC Berkeley and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that over the last century, levels of mercury have risen dramatically higher up in the food chain, specifically in some Pacific seabirds.

The study suggests that the poisonous effects of mercury toxicity, which makes its way into the atmosphere through industrial emissions, may be affecting already sensitive species such as the black-footed albatross, an endangered bird found mostly in the north Pacific.

Tests were conducted on feathers of the birds, with some dating back to 1880. UC Berkeley doctoral student in integrative biology and study co-author, Anh-Thu Vo, found a correlation between the rising mercury levels and the increased emissions from mineral mining and coal burning, which would have led to mercury settling in microscopic oceanic organisms, working its way up the food chain to sea birds, becoming more concentrated along the way.

After World War II mercury levels increased in the albatross, as industrial production also increased. A spike was also noticed in the 1990s when Asian economies also increased production activity.

Vo told reporters that while the study did not focus on human risks of mercury exposure, “It’s possible that any human populations that largely depend on the same marine sources (of food) may be exposed to more methylmercury and be at risk.”

Mercury poisoning can cause serious health problems including damage to the central nervous system and the reproductive system. The FDA suggests women, especially those pregnant or nursing, and children, avoid large fish such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel, as they may contain toxic levels of mercury.

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