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Tracking the Spread of Mercury Across the Planet

Prof. Daniel Obrist
Daniel Obrist

04/21/2019
Boston Globe
By Ysabelle Kempe

Many of us are aware that mercury, a naturally occurring metal, is found in much of the fish we consume. We also know it’s not all that great for our health. But how does the chemical element make its way onto our dinner plate in the first place?

A team led by researchers at University of Massachusetts Lowell is seeking to more deeply understand the process through which mercury is disseminated across the planet. They are studying how much of the toxic substance accumulates in forests, with the goal of reducing the pollutant worldwide.

“It has always been a natural element. It has always been in fish,” said Daniel Obrist, lead researcher. “But what we’ve done as a society is we’ve increased mercury deposition to between three and five times what it was before 1750, before large-scale industrialization.”

Mercury can be found in rocks in the Earth’s crust, such as coal. It is a global pollutant, meaning it can be emitted in one area but affect others.

As humans mine and burn coal, the gaseous form of mercury is released into the atmosphere. Plants uptake the gas into their leaves, much like they do with carbon dioxide.