Claim: Climate Will Increase Toxic Mercury Levels in Seawater

Mercury Metal
Mercury Metal. By W. Oelen ( [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

A new study claims global warming will increase biological production and bio-accumulation of methylmercury, a hideously toxic organic mercury compound. But the attempt by the study authors to attach their conclusions to future climate projections seems questionable.

The abstract of the study;

Terrestrial discharges mediate trophic shifts and enhance methylmercury accumulation in estuarine biota

Sofi Jonsson, Agneta Andersson, Mats B. Nilsson, Ulf Skyllberg, Erik Lundberg, Jeffra K. Schaefer, Staffan Åkerblom and Erik Björn

The input of mercury (Hg) to ecosystems is estimated to have increased two- to fivefold during the industrial era, and Hg accumulates in aquatic biota as neurotoxic methylmercury (MeHg). Escalating anthropogenic land use and climate change are expected to alter the input rates of terrestrial natural organic matter (NOM) and nutrients to aquatic ecosystems. For example, climate change has been projected to induce 10 to 50% runoff increases for large coastal regions globally. A major knowledge gap is the potential effects on MeHg exposure to biota following these ecosystem changes. We monitored the fate of five enriched Hg isotope tracers added to mesocosm scale estuarine model ecosystems subjected to varying loading rates of nutrients and terrestrial NOM. We demonstrate that increased terrestrial NOM input to the pelagic zone can enhance the MeHg bioaccumulation factor in zooplankton by a factor of 2 to 7 by inducing a shift in the pelagic food web from autotrophic to heterotrophic. The terrestrial NOM input also enhanced the retention of MeHg in the water column by up to a factor of 2, resulting in further increased MeHg exposure to pelagic biota. Using mercury mass balance calculations, we predict that MeHg concentration in zooplankton can increase by a factor of 3 to 6 in coastal areas following scenarios with 15 to 30% increased terrestrial runoff. The results demonstrate the importance of incorporating the impact of climate-induced changes in food web structure on MeHg bioaccumulation in future biogeochemical cycling models and risk assessments of Hg.

Read more:

To their credit, the study authors appear to have performed actual physical experiments, they didn’t just rely on models, like far too many climate studies. But their conclusion references climate models – it is the model based assumptions behind the conclusion which I am questioning.

Delving into the study, the main issue appears to be nutrients released by land use changes and increased coastal rainfall will change the population balance of water based microorganisms. The new population balance (fewer microscopic photosynthetic plants, more fungi and bacteria consuming dissolved organic matter from runoff) and increased nutrient availability encourages increased microorganism conversion of inorganic mercury compounds into methyl-mercury.

… The observed differences in MeHg accumulation in these studies were proposed to be caused by differences in the chemical speciation of MeHg. Because of the relatively small increase (20%) in total DOC and the large fraction (>75%) of terrestrial NOM in the mesocosm water phase, the chemical speciation of MeHg was not affected by the applied treatment schemes in our study (table S2). Our results instead emphasize a shift to a heterotrophic pelagic food web as a major cause behind MeHg biomagnification in pelagic biota in response to moderate, and environmentally realistic, enhanced terrestrial NOM loadings to coastal marine environments. …

Read more: Same link as above

My first concern is the prediction of higher runoff. As WUWT recently discussed, global warming cannot cause significantly increased total rainfall, because this would violate the second law of thermodynamics – there is no additional energy available to power that increased rainfall. At worst any global warming will cause rainfall patterns to shift around.

The study itself admits that the prediction of increased runoff, if it occurs, will not apply everywhere. Any contamination problems which occur will be localised.

… The magnitude of the increase in DOC [dissolved organic carbon] concentration for the TM treatment is also relevant for climate change–induced runoff scenarios for large coastal regions worldwide (fig. S4) (7). However, it should be noted that the interpretations of data recently compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (7) project a highly variable response in runoff with altered climate, with either increases or decreases, for different regions globally. …

Read more: Same link as above

Given that increased runoff, if it occurs at all, will only occur in some regions, there is a simple solution. In regions where nutrient rich runoff poisons the local fish, the solution is to apply existing waterway management regimes, to find ways to minimise organic matter and nutrients entering river systems.

This seems to be terrific land use study, the authors appear to have genuinely contributed to knowledge about how waterway contamination contributes to marine mercury pollution. Given their rigorous experimental effort, it seems a shame the authors seemed to find it necessary to spice up their study with references to very uncertain regional climate projections.

Update (EW) – fixed a typo in the first paragraph

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January 28, 2017 10:17 pm

The ban on incandescent light bulbs will certainly increase mercury levels

Patrick MJD
Reply to  Joe
January 28, 2017 11:49 pm

That is so true. I see broken and unbroken mini fluorescent tubes in the waste bins every week, even in the recycling bins. I guess people either do not know what is in them or simply don’t care once placed in the bin, out of sight, out of mind, buried in landfill.
I use LED bulbs myself since they became available, never been a fan of tubes because of the very real toxic hazard if broken open.
But even then, I find supposed “experts” that don’t understand the difference between a power rating of a lamp and the power rating equivalent of an LED bulb.

Reply to  Patrick MJD
January 29, 2017 5:38 am

Recycling fluorescents for consumers is a problem. What disposal site wants to take on the regulatory, environmental, health and safety problems with accumulating and storing the things? Break bulbs and you have a clean up problem. Also, “green” fluorescents pass TCLP and can be landfilled. In my area there is no place for household disposal. Industry and business accumulation and disposal is done.

Bryan A
Reply to  Patrick MJD
January 29, 2017 11:15 am

It is most unfortunate that, in order to have their paper taken into consideration for publishing, the references to climate change were likely a necessity

Reply to  Patrick MJD
January 29, 2017 8:01 pm

As Bob Greene points out, our local trash and waste disposal site explicitly refuses to accept fluorescent light bulbs in the recycling.
Recycling cans with fluorescent bulbs will be passed by.
Their official material even states, “put the fluorescent bulbs into the landfill”.

steven f
Reply to  Joe
January 28, 2017 11:59 pm

I don’t think this is likely. Yes incandescent bulbs were replaced with flourescent bulbs that use mercury. However with that can an increased effort in many places to increase recycling of these bulbs to avoid the release. Additionally LED bulb are now replacing Fluorescscent bulbs. LED”s don’t contain mercury. and they last longer. Along with the change in bulbs lighting efficiency has increased meaning less power and the associated solution due to that power generation. So overall I think mercury emissions will drop.

Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 12:37 am

You are living in dream world.
Nobody recycles light bulbs, nor can you once they have broken.

Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 7:42 am

Joe: I recycle my flourescent bulbs. I’m a “nobody”? Thanks.
(Never heard of the rule about once broken you can’t recycle. Nothing in the listing of hazardous wastes from my landfill. The landfill had people put the CFLs in a 55 gallon drum, through a small hole, and vacuumed out the air through a HEPA filter to catch the mercury. Then the bulbs were deemed harmless and went to the landfill.)

Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 8:38 am

I took my premature, failed CFD with Mercury to the town recycle center, could not find any place to recycle it. Found the nice gentleman who manages the center and he told me to just put it in the dumpster. so much for CFD bulbs being harmful to the environment.

Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 9:40 am

There are many advantages to using LED lighting and the technology is advancing rapidly both from the LEDs themselves and the power supply systems. I have replaced most of the CFL bulbs with LEDs. Better efficiency generally. The problem with LED lamps is the reliability of the power supply. I have dissected the LED bulbs that failed and found the failure to be exclusively in the power circuitry. The LED elements were still fully functional. The electrolytic capacitors used in the power supply are often the limiting component. Although high rel parts are available the cost requirements usually limits the choices. As far as toxic materials most electronics assembly is moving toward RoHS compliance so the risks of “toxic” materials is significantly reduced lead and mercury. @Eric W. referencing “Scientific American” for any data or technical evidence is questionable at best. That publication lost even tangential connection to science years ago. I grew up reading the magazine cover to cover and still have old copies back to the early ’60s. I finally gave up about 15 years ago and cancelled my subscription. I miss the old version.

steven f
Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 9:53 am

Eric, most of the lead in electronics is from the lead based solder used to make electrical contacts. About 15 years ago Europe mandated the use Lead free solder. Most nations in the world and the industry quickly followed. Most consumer electronics now have RoHS label on the packaging indicating it is lead free. Arsenic is used in extremely small quantities in some LEDs and and as a docent in Silicon integrated circuits. Concentration in electronics is generally much lower than what you commonly find in soil food and water and soil.
“Recycling fluorescents for consumers is a problem. What disposal site wants to take on the regulatory, environmental, health and safety problems with accumulating and storing the things?”
Bob in the US hardware stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s have recycle bins for CFL and tubes. The law does not require them to do it. Try using google to find waste recyclers. In many places google will find someone to take them.

Bryan A
Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 11:23 am

The City of Santa Rosa began an initiative a few years ago to replace their street lightning with the new LED lights as they DO use less energy. However, the expected lifespan of 10 years is beginning to look less likely as numerous lights are starting to burn out after only 2 – 3 years of use. This is a most unfortunate occurrence as their light is brighter than the old yellow sodium vapor lights. Though, even if they don’t last the anticipated lifespan, the additional initial cost of the LED light will be saved in energy use after the first year

Bryan A
Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 11:29 am

The estimated energy savings is based on the LED lights costing twice what traditional HPSV lights cost which, for general street lighting, is a good figure

Reply to  steven f
January 30, 2017 8:39 am

Eric, the toxic elements in LEDs are dopants which exist in very small quantities. Beyond that the LED itself is encased in a shell of plastic that will take decades to centuries to degrade.

Reply to  Joe
January 29, 2017 12:46 am

Joe… That was the absolutely obvious reply to this piece of baseless propaganda pap..

Reply to  AndyG55
January 29, 2017 7:45 am

That makes most people think exactly what enviros believe—people care nothing about pollution, only convenience. They would dump poison in the water because who care? Thanks for making people look as irresponsible as the enviros claim they are.

Carbon BIgfoot
Reply to  Joe
January 29, 2017 10:09 am

I only like the tuna with Hg. It tastes better.

Bryan A
Reply to  Carbon BIgfoot
January 29, 2017 11:35 am

The best tuna comes out of the Hg wells 🙂

Reply to  Joe
February 7, 2017 2:36 pm

Thank God that incandescents were banned to save the planet.

January 28, 2017 10:36 pm

Referencing “climate change” in grant proposal = more likely receipt of funding from

Reply to  hunter
January 28, 2017 10:53 pm

Hunter @ 10:36
Yes, totally agree. It’s a very sad sign of the times. I would suspect that the authors must (hopefully) feel some guilt/shame in having to display the advertising in an otherwise normal scientific publication. Is this what they mean by post modern science??

Reply to  hunter
January 28, 2017 11:12 pm

“…more likely” really is “almost certainly.”

January 28, 2017 10:41 pm
Places like this should worry the world far more.
Most run off problems have relatively simple and inexpensive solutions.
But entire lakes / inland seas of this sludge are a different story.
Imagine if this got into the water supply of a city ?

January 28, 2017 10:55 pm

And if these claims prove wrong, will they give the money back?
Or as happens when you screw up in the private sector, will they get fired?

January 29, 2017 12:30 am

Looking forward to reading the paper. A preliminary comment is that irrespective of climate, there is much more to be learned about natural trace toxicology. Methyl mercury has some background already but one should anticipate the fuller story to be extremely complicated. The levels are so low that some of the main players like transport binding agents might themselves be low level, making identification hard.
It does seem that human ilness of some types can drift in and out of prominence on decadal scales, causes speculative, like cadmium had been accused of blood pressure elevation. An agent, be it methyl mercury in this case, with potential to harm on very large scale deserves detailed study far ahead of yet another humdrum climate paper.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
January 29, 2017 12:08 pm

Things are never simple!
The EPA recommendations on eating fish with methyl mercury are based on the analysis of the content of raw fish, not cooked fish. Furthermore, the endangerment finding is based on only two studies, one of which found no correlation between cognitive impairment of children and another one which did find a correlation. Yes, I think that you are right that more needs to be done.

Dodgy Geezer
January 29, 2017 12:47 am

“Given their rigorous experimental effort, it seems a shame the authors seemed to find it necessary to spice up their study with references to very uncertain regional climate projections.”
How else were they going to get it published?

January 29, 2017 1:20 am

I would think that an increase in Hg compounds is more a function of human population and indurtrialization then anything else. Is there evidence in an increase in such Hg compounds during the Eemian which was warmer than today with more ice cap melting and higher sea levels?

Stephen Richards
January 29, 2017 1:21 am

” The input of mercury (Hg) to ecosystems is estimated to have increased ” Sufficient to dismiss this work.
ESTIMATED is not science, its BS

Reply to  Stephen Richards
January 29, 2017 7:48 am

You just removed a whole bunch of science. Estimated is very common. Science “estimates” how much water there is in the ocean, etc. Best to find out how many things are “calculated”, which in most cases is “estimated”, before tossing out all estimates.

Reply to  Stephen Richards
January 29, 2017 11:20 am

Estimates are fine where justified, and when based on reality. Mercury has been know to be toxic for over a century. Hasn’t someone been monitoring mercury levels in nature? How do the ‘estimates’ used in this paper compare to actual measurements?
We can estimate how much water is in the oceans because we have many measurements to derive those estimates from. We know the area of the oceans, we have good measurements of their depth in most areas, we know how water expands or contracts depending on temperature or depth.
Personally I have more faith in this papers estimates then most in Climate Science. It’s apparent that they actual do their experiments and measure the outcomes.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  schitzree
January 29, 2017 12:25 pm

You said, “Mercury has been know to be toxic for over a century.”
MUCH more than a century. Its toxicity has been known since ancient times. Mercury compounds found early use as medicine precisely because of their toxicity. It was an early treatment for syphilis.
Take a look here:

Michael Jankowski
Reply to  Stephen Richards
January 29, 2017 11:50 am

It was the first line of the abstract. It’s background information. The basis for this “estimate” is likely described in the lit review/introduction of the paper. Overreaction to say the least.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Stephen Richards
January 29, 2017 12:16 pm

Probably “estimated” was a poor choice of words. It can be documented that mercury has seen widespread distribution because of industrial processes. Its natural occurrence is rather restricted in high-grade deposits. However, because of its unique properties, it has found use in many applications that have spread it all over the world. Also, large quantities that were not of ore grade are released from mining and burning coal.

January 29, 2017 1:32 am

Natural sources have been putting mercury into the atmosphere and oceans since the atmosphere and oceans were formed. Eventually, the mercury is sequestered in deep ocean sediments and doesn’t accumulate in the atmosphere or oceans. Otherwise, the environment would be too toxic for life to continue.
We don’t have a really good handle on the effects of the increased mercury.

… it is hard to predict whether some increase or decrease in Hg concentrations in sea water will manifest in an increase or decrease in the fish. link

Scientists don’t really understand the mercury cycle. In that circumstance, it is easy to come up with alarmist predictions.
Mercury is limited in the environment. Increased flushing due to increased precipitation might not move much more mercury to the ocean. It might be that most of the easily flushed mercury is already transported to the ocean.
We have been working to reduce mercury pollution for a long time. That means the amount of mercury available to be flushed into the ocean is decreasing.
Jonsson et al also seem to neglect the fact that most mercury is transported by the atmosphere.

Atmospheric transport is likely the primary mechanism by which Hg0 is distributed throughout the environment, unlike many pollutants that follow erosion or leaching pathways. link

What we have here is a bunch of folks making apocalyptic predictions when they should actually be working hard to understand the underlying processes better.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  commieBob
January 29, 2017 11:01 am

There is almost nothing known about the amount of mercury released by Black Smokers at spreading centers in the oceans. However, it is almost certainly present along with the other heavy metals and sulfides that create the black ‘smoke.’

Julian Flood
January 29, 2017 1:46 am

Does this study enable us to use Hg as a proxy for dissolved silica run-off? If so we might be in a position to quantify the changes in plankton populations caused by the agricultural revolution and the putative climate change mediated rainfall change.
More dissolved silica means more diatoms. By delaying calcareous phytoplankton blooms these silica-shelled plankton pull down less CO2 overall, which if things were previously in balance means increasing atmospheric CO2, Diatoms pull down relatively more heavy C and thus would leave a light C signal in the atmosphere if their population levels go up.

Robin Hewitt
January 29, 2017 2:24 am

…and let us not forget U864 which sits on the sea floor along with it’s cargo of 61 tons of liquid mercury and live torpedo’s.

Brook HURD
January 29, 2017 2:31 am

That Scientific American article is a bit off base. White LEDs are blue LEDs with a yellow phosphor which adds sufficient yellow to convert the light to an off white. Blue and Green LEDs are Gallium Aluminum Nitride and Gallium Nitride. The LEDs themselves are sealed in transparent plastic. There is nothing gaseous in an LED to breath in. Household bulbs operating on AC will include a rectifier to provide direct current to power the LEDs. Rectifiers will contain other elements. Automotive LED bulbs are built with the LEDs in series so that can run on 12 VDC. The efficiency of LEDs derives from their operation. They convert electrons directly into photons.

Bryan A
Reply to  Eric Worrall
January 29, 2017 11:38 am

I just installed my first 3. At $19 per light, I hope they deliver on their 10 year promise

January 29, 2017 2:48 am

No matter what the scientific merits of this work it has achieved that which matters must in climate ‘science’ unquestioning coverage in the press as a climate ‘doom ‘ story .
When you go fishing for grants you use bait that attracts grants , is one lesson the author have certaintly learnt and hence the ramming in of the ‘climate doom ‘ angle .

George McFly......I'm your density
January 29, 2017 2:51 am

and it will also cause big spooky monsters to come out of Loch Ness on dark nights…

Keith J
January 29, 2017 3:05 am

The notion that mercury is oxidized to methyl mercury is absurd. Yes, in certain anoxic conditions it can but the mercury floating around in fishes is complexed with sulfur in certain sulfur containing amino acids.
Mercury loves sulfur. The most common mercury ore? Cinnibar. .mercury sulfide. In fact, Cinnibar is hardly toxic as it has no vapor pressure and won’t dissolve.
There is no way to measure ppb concentrations except via ELEMENTAL analysis. The compound is ripped apart and all the other elements, sulfur included, are thrown out with the bathwater.

Reply to  Keith J
January 29, 2017 4:16 am

Cinnibar is hardly toxic …

It’s poisonous if you eat it. Cinnabar was one of the favorite ingredients used by Daoist alchemists to make immortality elixir. Chinese history is littered with deaths caused by the ingestion of those elixirs.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  commieBob
January 29, 2017 11:17 am

Keith J,
I have followed the issue of methyl mercury since the early-1970s. I even contracted with a lab to analyze for methyl mercury in water and fish tissue for a senior research project in an environmental geology class. Your claims are contrary to what I believe to be true. Can you provide any citations for me that support your claims?
Incidentally, you misspelled cinnabar, which doesn’t give me confidence that you actually have any experience with the subject.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  commieBob
January 29, 2017 11:25 am

Actually, cinnabar is only slightly soluble in Aqua Regia, so your stomach HCl isn’t going to do much to it before it is passed on. I suspect that the reputation for cinnabar being toxic is actually related to either the natural presence of native mercury, or mercury being released from the sulfide during grinding. In any event, go to this link [ ] and scroll down to page 25 for an article I wrote on mineral toxicity.

January 29, 2017 3:48 am

The biological half life of methyl mercury is 80 days according to a 2015 study. That would leave CH3Hg levels at 0.1% of current after 2.2 years, or only 1ppm after 4.4 years. So the crucial factor is how much CH3Hg is made as pollution. There aren’t really any industrial sources of CH3Hg. It’s made naturally in aquatic systems. Just goes to show: nature does not love you. It’s trying to kill us from the day we’re born. We don’t really make mercury thermometers and barometers anymore. Fluorescent bulbs are on the way out. Given the militancy of the EPA, I’m baffled as to what these new sources of mercury pollution will be. More scientists crying wolf to make headlines.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  mark4asp
January 29, 2017 11:32 am

One of the concerns about coal-fired power plants is that they release mercury into the environment as a vapor, which can then condense and rain out. Also, there are huge quantities of mercury occurring both naturally in certain localities, and as a by-product of gold mining in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In aquatic anoxic environments, anaerobic bacteria will attempt to remove the elemental mercury by methylating it.

Keith J
Reply to  mark4asp
January 30, 2017 2:47 pm

How is METHYL mercury measured? By INFERENCE based on ICP- MS. This is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry which is elemental analysis. The molecule is destroyed, then each element is measured based on mass.
Using structural analysis via nuclear magnetic resonance can elucidate hydrogen in a methyl group influenced by mercury BUT that has a very high noise to signal even under very high field NMR.
Occum Razor here. Where does mercury accumulate. .tissue wise? Hair, nails and skin. Why? These structures have high levels of sulfur based amino acids. Second OR point. What is the most stable Hg compound? Nature shows that to be its primary ore. Mercury sulfide.
When chasing around a few ppb concentrations, one cannot assume compound or structure without considering stability.
Oh yes, cysteine? Sulfur containing amino acid. Which explains efficacy in Hg treatment. The old standby? BAL or dimercaperol. Those twin thiol groups latch onto Hg.

Philip T. Downman
January 29, 2017 3:58 am

Why quarrel about mercury? The article was about methyl-mercury, which is an organic substance with quite another kind of toxicity and metabolism than metallic or mos inorganic mercury compounds. It is lipophilic, quite stable and can accumulate in body fat like the brain. From toxicological point of view alkylated mercury and inorganic mercury are different issues.
It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when discussing the subject.

Reply to  Philip T. Downman
January 29, 2017 4:32 am

See mark4asp’s post immediately above. See also the wiki article on methyl mercury. Mercury is metabolized to methyl mercury in an aquatic environment.

Keith J
Reply to  Philip T. Downman
January 30, 2017 2:43 pm

How is METHYL mercury measured? By INFERENCE based on ICP- MS. This is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry which is elemental analysis. The molecule is destroyed, then each element is measured based on mass.
Using structural analysis via nuclear magnetic resonance can elucidate hydrogen in a methyl group influenced by mercury BUT that has a very high noise to signal even under very high field NMR.
Occum Razor here. Where does mercury accumulate. .tissue wise? Hair, nails and skin. Why? These structures have high levels of sulfur based amino acids. Second OR point. What is the most stable Hg compound? Nature shows that to be its primary ore. Mercury sulfide.
When chasing around a few ppb concentrations, one cannot assume compound or structure without considering stability.
Oh yes, cysteine? Sulfur containing amino acid. Which explains efficacy in Hg treatment. The old standby? BAL or dimercaperol. Those twin thiol groups latch onto Hg.

Keith J
Reply to  Keith J
January 30, 2017 2:58 pm

Furthermore..the measurement of mercury uses concentration procedure with beta mercaptoethanol which cleaves the disulfide bond in proteins.
The only way to measure ppb levels is to concentrate and since the bond is strong, the structure must be destroyed. It is elemental analysis with inference the mercury exists in a methyl group.
Enter the study of the Seychelles Islands with regards to fish and mercury…No toxic effects despite higher levels. Why? My sulfur hypothesis.
Mercurophobia was borne from limited cases from consumption of seed corn in Iraq to Minamata Japan. And one researcher in NMR who didn’t use proper PPE.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Keith J
January 30, 2017 4:24 pm

Keith J,
I won’t quarrel with your claim about a particular method of analysis that destroys the structure with the technique. However, there are alternative analysis techniques [ ] that appear to provide reproducible analyses of the methyl compound.
I suppose the unanswered question is, if methyl mercury is bound up with sulfur-containing organic material, how does it get concentrated as it moves up the predator line, and if it is already deactivated, how does it act as a neurotoxin?

January 29, 2017 4:06 am

Another “Given global warming . . .” study.
A clever blend of hydrargyrumphobia and weather phobia.

January 29, 2017 4:29 am

Climate Change is a deity.

michael hart
January 29, 2017 5:04 am

At first quick scan there are some large overlapping error bars in their data.

January 29, 2017 5:28 am

I think the description of methyl mercury as hideously toxic is over the top. It’s something I’d leave to the environmental activists.

Reply to  Bob Greene
January 29, 2017 5:56 am

Di methyl mercury is hideously toxic so maybe the source of confusion

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  ferdberple
January 29, 2017 11:39 am

Methyl mercury is dangerous in its own right, but Bob Greene is right that people over-react to its danger. Unlike in Minamata Bay, where people were in the habit of eating raw fish and shellfish, I’m unaware of a single well-documented case of methyl mercury poisoning in the US. Probably because methyl mercury is very volatile and Americans are in the habit of cooking their fish before eating it.

Keith J
Reply to  Bob Greene
January 31, 2017 6:16 pm

There is zero evidence the mercury measured in sea life is methyl mercury. See the Rochester Uni study of the people in the Seychelles Islands circa 1998.
The chemistry utilized to concentrate mercury compounds in fish tissues prior to elemental analysis cleaves disulfide bonds of proteins which liberates mercury and then HPLC concentration procedure cannot differentiate the thiol from methyl.
Sure, MeHg WAS found in fish from Minamata Japan as the deliberate dumping from chloralki processes caused levels far exceeding natural coping mechanisms. Toxicity of most metals is far from linear..not to say there is a hormetic effect but there is certainly a threshold.
Most animals deal with Hg by concentrating it in wear or shedding structures. Epidermis, hair and nails. Because of sulfur based amino acids making the proteins found in these structures.

January 29, 2017 5:34 am

Methylmercury (MeHg) injection in postnatal rat acutely induced inhibition of mitosis and stimulated apoptosis [cellular suicide] in the hippocampus, which later resulted in intermediate-term deficits in structure size and cell number.
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is the N-acetyl derivative of [amino-acid] L-cysteine used clinically for treatment of drug intoxication. [primarily used as the antidote for acetameninophen poisoning, actually]
Treatment of MeHg-exposed rats with repeated injections of NAC abolished MeHg toxicity.
slightly off topic…
first images from GOES-16 (January 15), &
first images from Himawari-9 (January 24)

Pop Piasa
Reply to  Khwarizmi
January 29, 2017 8:56 am

Thanks much.
There seems to be high albedo, compared to earlier pictures.

Keith J
Reply to  Khwarizmi
January 30, 2017 3:00 pm

Cysteine is a sulfur containing amino acid. Mercury loves sulfur.

January 29, 2017 5:52 am

Methyl mercury is eliminated naturally, about 50% every 2 months. Except for industrial level contamination natural background levels are likely safe.

R. Shearer
Reply to  ferdberple
January 29, 2017 7:07 am

I think bioaccumulation, in fish for example, is one concern. Anyway, Indian and China are the major offenders and they should be encouraged to implement modern emission controls on all coal fired power plants.

Retired Kit P
Reply to  R. Shearer
January 29, 2017 7:44 am

So you are saying India and China should adopt stupid policies because we were stupid in the US?
If you can show that emissions from coal plants are resulting in Hg levels above a threshold of harm, then maybe mercury should be regulated. But you can not! It is easy to show and there is zero smoking guns.
On the other hand, the benefits of cheap power are huge. With cheap power you get clean air, clean drinking water and modern sanitation.

Reply to  R. Shearer
January 29, 2017 7:55 am

Retired Kip: Why if cheap energy means clean air, water, etc are China’s skies gray? Last time I checked, clean air wasn’t a shade of gray.

Pop Piasa
Reply to  R. Shearer
January 29, 2017 9:56 am

Sheri, the air pollution in those areas is similar to western countries in the past, when unfiltered industrial emissions were compounded by residential coal furnaces and wood burning stoves. Once the energy became cheap enough, the masses switched from open burning of coal and coke to clean heating by gas or electricity. You can’t just blame power production for their air quality problems. Steel mills are way bigger emitters than the power plants at “street level”.
It is also worth mentioning that fly ash is not the source of mercury, it is bottom ash from a pulverized coal boiler (the sluice pond) which contains it and therefore must be kept in confinement until it degrades to background levels.

Pop Piasa
Reply to  R. Shearer
January 29, 2017 10:13 am

Crap,! I’ll retract the statement about fly ash not containing mercury with embarrassment. shows that 48 tons a year are released airborne in the US. I was brainwashed by my former employer, I guess. Always helps to check facts before sharing…

Reply to  R. Shearer
January 29, 2017 11:27 am

Pop Piasa: I was commenting on Kip saying cheap power gets you clean air, etc. Obviously, it does not. There have to be other factors like people actually cleaning up emissions and not dumping toxic substances or you have China and India. Cheap power is not a panacea for environmental causes. It does raise standards of living. (Glad you noted that coal emissions do contain mercury. The amount quoted depends on the source. However, it is less than natural sources. Significant, perhaps, but no way to really know right now. Not enough data.)

Jim G1
January 29, 2017 7:31 am

Fresh out of private industry working for a public educational institution I once designed a protocol for cleaning industrial polution from lake waters using a federal grant intended for that purpose. It was a one year project . My design was to hire a few employees with good educational backgrounds in the hard sciences to oversee the project and spend the vast majority of the several million dollars on the actual clean up of the various sources of the contamination going into the lake. After finishing the design, my project, the school placed internal politically connected candidates in charge and spent the money on travel and meetings in which they talked about clean up! Environmental sciences, the government method! Give the money to your unqualified friends and talk about the problem, solving nothing.
It was a very educational experience for me. I am not surprised in the least that the attempt to tie the above project to global warming was made. It’s all about the money.

Reply to  Jim G1
January 29, 2017 7:58 am

If you actually clean up the lakes, then you work yourself out of a job. Government employees are very skilled at keeping their jobs.

Jim G1
Reply to  Sheri
January 29, 2017 8:27 am

Some of those that applied for positions had advanced degrees in environmental sciences with courses in tree planting and horseback riding, no chemistry, calculus, physics, etc.! American education, what a country, as the comedian says. The educational system has become another swamp that needs drained if we are to take back our country.

January 29, 2017 7:57 am

Back when we boomers were kids we’d play with liquid mercury, roll it around in our hands, coat pennies with it, with no ill effects. Well, maybe that explains our bad attitudes.
For years I and several coworkers handled instrumentation containing open quarts of mercury and a medical surveillance found no physical evidence. I personally processed hundreds of pounds of mercury for recycling. Of course with proper safety procedures, respirator, gloves, etc.
Decades of pumping infinitesimal amounts of mercury out of coal fired stacks exposed thousands of power plant workers in and around those stacks.
I defy anybody to find a real person with real illness or real death caused by those exposures and not just the hallucinations of some virtual computer based study.

Retired Kit P
Reply to  Nicholas Schroeder
January 29, 2017 8:27 am

Rare but it happens. Two teenagers showed up in the emergency room with difficulty walking. It was initially thought the brother and sister were using drugs. Blood sample found high levels of mercury and treatment was started. The parents also had high levels but they were less symptomatic as expected.
Turns out the gas company contaminated their house and 9000 other houses while replacing 100,000 old gas meters.
It is classic hazard analysis. A gas leak can result in fatal explosions. Extra precautions are required and no explosions occurred as would be expected statistically.
Had an extra and very inexpensive precaution been taken, the gas company would have saved huge cleanup costs.

Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 10:35 am

Actual origin of the mercury? Was it in the meters? Somme wall thermostats and electrical switches used to/still have little vials of mercury. There are a few in my junk box.
But this is an isolated extreme case of carelessness, not incidental environmental exposure to much lesser amounts.

Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 8:52 pm

That does not amount to enough mercury unless all of the mercury was inhaled by the people, and even then, I doubt the amount of mercury is sufficient.
This reeks of urban legend.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Nicholas Schroeder
January 29, 2017 11:51 am

Liquid mercury is relatively harmless. However, the vapors are dangerous! I know from personal experience. I attempted to retort some gold amalgam to remove the mercury. I then melted the remaining gold sponge in a closed environment (my garage). Unfortunately, I hadn’t retorted the amalgam to a high enough temperature or for a long enough period of time. Within about 24 hours I started showing the the classic symptoms of mercury salivation; it lasted about two weeks before subsiding. Fortunately, the damage wasn’t permanent and I didn’t lose my hair.
The mercury miners in Almaden (Spain) were routinely retired when they could no longer sign their paychecks. It was almost certainly the mercury vapors that were primarily responsible, but daily skin exposure to metallic mercury over decades probably contributed to the build up of mercury in their systems.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 7:57 am

Oh my God! Oh my God! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!
Hg! Hg!Hg!Hg!Hg!Hg!Hg!Hg!
Isn’t fearmongering fun? Great fun for stupid people.
So how do you know if there is a problem? Take hair and blood samples and compare the actual levels to know levels of harm.
This what the CDC does. This is no Hg problem and levels are decreasing. The reason is that we have identified the major anthropocentric sources of mercury and eliminated them. Natural HG is huge in comparison.

Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 9:03 am

BAN ALL CHEMICALS . That’s the only answer .
BTW : I had a blob of mercury about the size of that in the picture I played with as a kid . I liked the way I could roll it around in the palm of my hand .

Retired Kit P
Reply to  Bob Armstrong
January 29, 2017 9:17 am

Bob since you put together a coherent sentence, maybe you lived in a drafty old house.
Indoor air pollution is a unintended consequence of saving energy by sealing up our houses. The levels of airborne radioactivity in the basement of the reactor building were lower than the outside levels if there was a temperature inversion. A certain irony for those who want to justifying closing nuke using conservation.
According to the US EPA, radon is leading cause of lung cancer. No wait it is second hand smoke. No wait it is ……
It is what ever your agenda is, and I can not prove you wrong. Of course the reason is you can not cause cancer, just increase your risk factors. The bad news is you can not reduce your risk very much either.
Enjoy life.

Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 1:49 pm

Kit P
Yea , a big old house . I happen to have a pic on my website : .
In my basement la/bor/v/atory I also played with a big bar of lead which left metallic sheen on my hands , and once ended a party upstairs when I learned how to make hydrogen sulfide with my Chemcraft set . I also learned how a Oudin.Tesla coil really can transmit enough energy to any nearby massive 1920s air gap tuning capacitor to give a hell of a shock .
Now there are lots of rural counties which can’t pass EPA proposed O3 regs .

Reply to  Bob Armstrong
January 29, 2017 10:08 am

Make sure Dihydrogen monoxide is on the list. Damn stuff kills millions every year/

Keith J
Reply to  Bob Armstrong
January 30, 2017 3:07 pm

I’ve a Fortin Barometer with over a pound of it. And I overhauled it. Cleaning the tube with nitric acid, then the mercury and baking the tube to remove surface water. The Hg nitric acid was then reacted with ethanol to render a tiny bit of fun primary explosive. All outdoors so I released a few mg of Hg.
I am the embodiment of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long. With a bit of John Galt and John the Savage. Specialization is indeed for insects.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 8:46 am

“Why if cheap energy means clean air, water, etc are China’s skies gray? Last time I checked, clean air wasn’t a shade of gray.”
If you checked, why are you asking Sheri?
I have checked by reading detailed studies and talking to people from China. China is a communist country. In northern parts of the country, free coal is provided for heating. This is the same problems that northern cities in the US and Europe had more than 50 years ago.
There was a new 5000 MWe modern coal plant just down the road from where we lived in China. I never observed pollution and I was looking. I am not arguing against pollution controls for SOx, NOx, and particulate. Obviously there is a economic benefit to go with the cost.
Show me a cost/benefit for mercury from coal plants. If there is no harm, then there is no benefit on cost. It is something we can afford in the US to be politically correct.

steven f
Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 10:23 am

“I never observed pollution and I was looking. ”
Mercury doesn’t leave the plants as a solid or colored liquid. It leaves the plant as as colorless vapor mixed in with the CO2 exhaust. Rain then carries it into the ground. Generally mercury pollution is not something you can see or smell. Generally mercury pollution has debilitating effects on people that can be hard to treat, irreversible and have significant medical and social cost associated with it.

Retired Kit P
Reply to  steven f
January 29, 2017 2:10 pm

“mercury pollution has debilitating effects on people that can be hard to treat,”
Not from coal plants in the US. Steven you can not find an actual case.

Keith J
Reply to  steven f
January 30, 2017 3:13 pm

See the study(IIRC Cornell U) on the people of the Seychelles Islands WRT Hg and fish.

Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 11:37 am

Since you didn’t say “the cost/benefit for mercury from coal plants” but rather “cheap energy means clean air, …..” I wasn’t addressing the cost/benefite from mercury reduction in coal power plant smoke stakes. I was addressing cheap energy.
You say the Chinese get free coal—that’s as cheap as it gets. Yet it causes more problems than it solves. I’m not seeing “cheap energy” as the answer and your answers seem to bear that out.
(I asked because someone—like yourself—might have more information or a more current source of information. I like to double check. Your answer leads me to believe that cheap energy does lead to gray skies.)

Retired Kit P
Reply to  Sheri
January 29, 2017 2:29 pm

Do you understand the difference between a coal power plant and burning cow pies to cook your food?
The latter is renewable energy so you should love it. There is a difference between power and energy.
“Cheap power is not a panacea for environmental causes. It does raise standards of living.”
There are no environmental causes in places that do not have high standards of living. Trust me on this, bears sh*t in the woods. Bambi does not care about protecting the environment. Massive herds of buffalo had huge environmental impact. Feedlots with 100,000 corn feed provide cheap protein (aka steak) for the poor with insignificant environmental impact.
In the US, power have to demonstrate insignificant environmental impact.
Sheri is just wrong. Cheap power is a panacea for the environment and the humans who use.

Keith J
Reply to  Retired Kit P
January 30, 2017 3:10 pm

Mercury became an issue when sulfur emissions were controlled. With sulfur, mercury precipitates as an insoluble and breaks the cycle. Same with lead.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 9:03 am

Let me say this about checking. You need good scientific sources and that excludes the news media.
If you want to know about air quality, go to When we lived in China our air quality was very good but not so good in a population center of 50 millions with must have been a million motorbikes. I checked the monitoring point on the consulate and found that it was not as bad as it looked visually. Not ‘good’ but not as bad as the media represents. Numbers relative to health effects is checking.
What I found interesting is that cities in China are not listed here:

Gary Pearse
January 29, 2017 10:14 am

Eric, in the earlier WUWT article you referenced, I had a comment that, because of buoyancy of moist air, little work was being done in raising this water up, but at altitude the moisture condensed, and the rain that fell DID do considerable work. Following brief discussion on this (IMHO) important point, it was left in limbo. As an analogy, if you forcibly took a block of wood down to the bottom of the sea and released it, you would do considerable work taking it down. Would releasing it to rise do any work, other than that of some localized turbulence/drag? The work done on the two journeys wouldn’t be equal. In the rising moist air case, even drag would be less than for the block of wood. (? ).

Clyde Spencer
January 29, 2017 12:01 pm

Eric and others,
“The study itself admits that the prediction of increased runoff, if it occurs, will not apply everywhere. Any contamination problems which occur will be localised.”
Methyl mercury is almost exclusively produced in anoxic or low-oxygen environments. That is, either stagnant water bodies, or stratified water bodies where the lower levels are depleted in oxygen. It would seem to me that one of the consequences of increased rainfall and runoff, should they occur, would be to disturb and oxygenate these stagnant bodies and reduce the methyl mercury production, if there is mercury even present.

Clyde Spencer
January 29, 2017 12:54 pm

The Wikipedia link that you provided has what I think are some errors. First, it says, “SEVERAL studies indicate that methylmercury is linked to subtle developmental deficits in children exposed in-utero such as loss of IQ points, and decreased performance in tests of language skills, memory function and attention deficits.[20].” However, examining the abstract of reference [20], it only cites three studies, one of which did not support the claim.
Elsewhere, the Wikipedia article blames the treatment of seeds with methyl mercury for causing poisoning of people who ate them, or from eating animals that died from eating them. I believe the seeds were treated with ethyl mercury.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 2:44 pm

Nicholas wrote,
“But this is an isolated extreme case of carelessness, ”
The failure rate was better than what we assume for human error of well trained well motivated workers.
Mercury poisoning, either by accident or industrial releases, are isolated cases because of the precautions we take.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 3:02 pm

“Yea , a big old house .”
With beautiful windows.
These are against the law in California. I build a house in when I was working at the nuke plant. My original plans were rejected because I had too many beautiful windows. My house had a lot few windows that the picture of houses built for Hollywood stars.
I had the architect label south facing windows as passive solar collectors.
During construction, one of the contractors suggested that he could frame in windows and then cover the future windows with sheet rock. After the the house is country final, just back and install windows.
Apparently, I was not the first person to object to building a house to save energy.

Retired Kit P
January 29, 2017 3:20 pm

@Pop P
You were not brainwashed by your employer. From your reference,
“Mercury emissions from power plants are considered the largest anthropocentric source of mercury released to the atmosphere; about 48 tons ….”
Note the nice double speak. Coal plants are the largest only because all of the significant sources of mercury have been eliminated by regulations. Coal emissions are not significant relative to natural emissions.
Furthermore, coal power Hg emissions are not a source of harm to people.

January 29, 2017 8:20 pm

The dreaded methylation of elements such as arsenic and mercury leading to widespread ill health and imminent death continues to be pushed. I live in within the confines of one of the world’s largest old goldfields where all of these nasties are in great abundance – not the methylated ones. I hasten to add for the simple reason is that they do not occur in nature at levels worthy of study. Mercury amalgam is common in the old tailings heaps. No doubt earlier workers did succumb to mercury related diseases especially derived from poorly designed retorts. There was no concerted clean up attempted though there have been sporadic reports written without identifying an issue of ugency. Today the goldfield the various goldfields have a combined population of 300,000 persons all the way up to 110 in age. With the latest medical facilities available none of the diseases that the frightbats would inflict upon us have been reported.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  IRFM
January 29, 2017 9:02 pm

Indeed, as with AGW, there is a lot of hand wringing, but little hard evidence. I had met and talked extensively with a geologist from the USGS who was studying mercury on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, the famous Mother Lode. While it was easy to find both amalgam and liquid mercury in streams and abandoned tunnels, he was unable to document any problems even with the wildlife that were a part of the ecosystem. I have spent years in the area and have never observed any wildlife that either looked or acted strangely.

January 29, 2017 8:54 pm

I am glad you read possibilities in the research Eric.
I have doubts.
The paper is filled with pompous bafflegab and serves as a wonderful example of confirmation bias in multiple directions.
Their premise is assumed, in a number of methods.
The researchers begin with the assumption rainfall will increase, from assumed and apparently accepted “global warming”.
From “global warming” caused greater rainfall, they surmise that greater rainfall means greater runoff.
From greater runoff, it is assumed greater runoff will erode undefined, but assumed pools of mercury.
From greater runoff, the researchers also assume greater amounts of land based organic content will get washed into estuarine systems, interfering with methyl-mercury.
The researchers entire ‘experiment’ is designed to ‘prove’ these hypotheses.
As we have seen in ‘other’ seawater experiments, a design was cobbled up, filled with sea water and sea floor cores and then operated.
There is no evidence that the improvised sea floor mesomodel, (middle size model), was run for any length of time first to validate an ocean model’s operation and to establish baselines; nor run for a length of time afterwards to verify baseline findings.
During the physical model’s run, it is very unclear exactly what was performed. Beyond their establishing the model in a dark room with halogen lighting for 12 hours daily.
Yeah, halogen lights for 12 hours daily; that will model the Bothnia Sea properly.
Then that little statement, “Using mercury mass balance calculations, we predict”; mass balance scales as used in quantitative or qualitative chemistry? Scales with accuracy, given proper maintenance and calibration, to four decimal places?
Just how minute are the samples they collected?
How many sample were taken throughout the experiment from all phases?
All to reach ‘prediction’ and a loose implication that all salt water estuarine environments will be affected.

Johann Wundersamer
January 29, 2017 9:00 pm


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