Eat fish, they say. It’s good for you. But climate change might be changing all of that. Rising sea levels are releasing dangerous levels of mercury. Fish is excellent for your heart as well as inflammation and arthritis. Fish oil helps treat ADHD in children and Alzheimer’s in adults. It even helps with our moods. But our healthy fish oil might not be so healthy after all, especially when raised in a mercury atmosphere.
Here Are the Facts About Mercury
Mercury is a natural substance with a lot of practical uses.
Elemental or metallic mercury is a shiny, silver-white metal and is liquid at room temperature. Older thermometers contain mercury, as do fluorescent light bulbs and some electrical switches. When dropped, elemental mercury breaks into smaller droplets, which can go through small cracks or become strongly attached to certain materials. At room temperature, exposed elemental mercury can evaporate to become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. If heated, it is a colorless, odorless gas.
Why is Mercury Dangerous?
Mercury comes in several forms. The most dangerous is Methylmercury, from mercury’s exposure to water. Methylmercury affects the immune system. It’s bad for the nervous system. It can even alter a person’s genes. Pregnant women are advised to stay away from fish. This is because Methylmercury is especially bad for growing embryos. Fish is how most humans encounter this deadly metal.
How are people exposed?
Fish who are are at the or near the top of the food chain have the highest concentration of mercury. In a 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that mercury also may pose a risk to some adults and wildlife populations that consume large amounts of contaminated fish.
The National Research Council, in its 2000 report on the toxicological effects of methylmercury, pointed out that the population at highest risk is the offspring of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood. The report went on to estimate that more than 60,000 children are born each year at risk for adverse neurodevelopmental effects due to in utero exposure to methylmercury.
What are the symptoms?
As many as 90,000 people are currently living with mercury poisoning without even knowing it. Mercury exposure can cause heart disease but explained away in other ways.
The symptoms of mercury poisoning are difficult to diagnose. It can, according to Men’s Journal, cause Corliss’ lack of adrenaline. It can also include weight loss and hair. After exposure to too much mercury, people can feel weak, tired, and dizzy. They can also suffer from impaired vision, hearing, and speech. It can even make people clumsy and more sensitive to light.
Until now, most fish mercury element exposure has come from manmade environmental pollutants. Much of it comes from burning coal. The smoke can travel long distances. Then, rain causes the mercury-filled emissions to drop into our lakes, rivers, and seas. It gets absorbed into microorganisms, which are eaten by other organisms. Fish then eat these organisms, and humans eat the fish. Mercury is also found in mammals and other animals that feed on fish.
Mercury Levels on the Rise, Why?
Things are about to get a lot worse. Mercury is released into the atmosphere every time a plant dies and decays. Since this rarely happens on a large scale, the environment can absorb the small amounts of mercury and adapt.
In the Arctic, though, the cold temperatures preserve the decaying plants on ice. Scientists estimate that there are 32 millions gallons of mercury frozen in the permafrost. This is the equivalent of about 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Moreover, this is “twice as much as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined,” according to a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Letters.
Permafrost, which is a layer of frozen soil, covers about a quarter of the earth. The permafrost acts much like your freezer. It slows molecular activity and keeps pathogens and other dangerous substances from being released into the environment. It also preserves everything trapped in the permafrost.
Until recently, the trapped mercury was of little concern. But that was before the environment began heating up thanks to greenhouse gas emissions. The Arctic is particularly hard-hit by climate change. It’s warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. The devastation is visible to the naked eye.
What does the future hold?
Experts estimate that at the rate we’re going, 20 percent of the permafrost will disappear by 2040, despite a history of tens of thousands of years. Furthermore, scientists estimate that the permafrost may disappear completely by 2100. That may not be in our lifetimes, but it could be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. The trapped mercury will have to go somewhere. However, scientists don’t know where, exactly, it will enter either the waterways or the atmosphere. Perhaps both.
Sue Natali, a permafrost expert at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center who was not involved in the study, said in a statement: “The results of this study are concerning because what we’re learning is that not only is permafrost a massive storage for carbon that will feedback on global climate, but permafrost also stores a globally significant pool of mercury, which is at risk of being released into the environment when permafrost thaws.”
Source: Washington Post
Considering the wide expanse of wetlands in the Arctic, where mercury enters the food supply and puts humans and animals at risk, this is a real concern.
Humans Are to Blame
Unfortunately, many politicians and industrial leaders want you to believe that climate change occurs naturally and isn’t affected by human interference. They’re wrong. It’s a scientific consensus that humans have caused the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the oceans and the environment.
Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree that humans are the cause. This is the equivalent of the number of scientists who agree that smoking causes cancer. Seventy percent of Americans agree with the scientists, and only 12 percent are in firm disagreement.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, most of the people in power are not. Recent policies are all about putting a stop to any preventative actions. Many want to send us back to the pre-environmental regulation days of the 20th century when coal fires polluted our atmosphere, and auto manufacturers had no concern for auto emission safety.
How to Avoid Mercury
Even now, young children, pregnant women, women who are nursing, and women who may become pregnant are advised to stay away from fish and shellfish. The fish with the highest levels of mercury are shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. The higher up on the food chain, the higher the levels of mercury.
Light tuna (the cheapest canned kind) is relatively low in mercury, but albacore (white) tuna, is much higher. Fortunately, shrimp, salmon, sardines, anchovies, pollock, and catfish are currently relatively low in mercury.
If you don’t know the mercury level in fish, avoid eating more than six ounces a week. If you believe you may have mercury poisoning, avoid fish altogether.
But the good news is that after about two months, mercury leaves your body through urine, feces, and breast milk. But only after it circulates through the bloodstream.
Can We Turn this Around?
Some scientists say we’re past the tipping point, and that it’s too late to save the permafrost, but others disagree. You can help:
Some lifestyle changes you can make to reduce global climate change and its impact on fish and wildlife.
1. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Reduce garbage by choosing reusable products. If it is something not reusable, try to purchase pr2oducts with minimum packaging. Recycle paper, plastic, glass, newspaper, and aluminum.
2. Save gas and walk more: When you save a gallon of gas you can help keep 20 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere. You also get lots of benefits by walking to the office, school, or grocery store.
3. Plant a tree: Plants absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. Planting a tree can help balance the increases of CO2.
4. Eat green: How much of the food in your grocery store comes from across the world? Transportation is a major contributor of greenhouse gasses. And consume locally grown food to reduce transportation emissions.
5. Use less heat and air conditioning: Use less air conditioning and heat, or just keeping your house 2 degrees lower in winter or 2 degrees higher in summer can make a big difference.
6. Save electricity: Turn off the lights, television, PC, or any other electrical devices when not in use.
7. Use less hot water: Simple social fixes like setting your water heater at 120 degrees, using low flow shower heads, washing your clothes in cold water, or using the energy saving setting on your dishwasher can go a long way.
8. Inform others: Inform family, friends, and colleagues about how they can reduce their carbon footprint by following the tips above.
Further, you can even go beyond that if you choose. Only vote for politicians who believe in climate change and vow to help clean up the environment. Recent studies have shown that if politicians and the business world work together to solve the problem, we can even limit the rise in temperature and we can keep the permafrost from melting.
Featured Image: Public Domain, by Ken Hill, via The Agashashok watershed in Noatak National PreserveNational Park Service