At last month’s U.N. conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Hartford resident and Dartmouth researcher Celia Chen advocated for the inclusion of scientists in the implementation of an international treaty to reduce toxic mercury in the environment.
Chen, a research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and a principal investigator in the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, joined delegates of the Minamata Convention’s ratifying and signatory countries in Geneva for the first Conference of the Parties. There, she represented Dartmouth as a nongovernmental organization.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury is named for a coastal city in Japan that was the site of the most severe mercury-poisoning episode in history, which first came to light in 1956. Mercury was in the wastewater from a chemical plant—a toxic discharge dumped into Minamata Bay on a massive scale, causing thousands to become ill. As of 2001, the Japanese government had recognized 2,265 victims, 1,784 of whom had died. More than 10,000 victims had received financial compensation from the plant’s operators.
“From the science perspective,” Chen says, “the ability to effectively implement the Minamata Convention will depend on comparable and consistent global measurements on land, and in air, water, and biota.”
Human exposure to mercury in the United States is primarily the result of eating large ocean fish like swordfish and tuna. “Mercury in these and other marine fish often exceeds levels that are harmful to children and the developing fetus. In the U.S., the largest source of the mercury that contaminates our seafood is the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal,” says Chen.
She notes that all the mercury discharged into the atmosphere eventually ends up in the oceans, lakes, and rivers. “Asia as a region is currently the largest contributor, but most of the mercury now cycling in the atmosphere, oceans, and on land is from the developed countries, since we began burning our coal 100 years ago.”
Chen says the U.N. conference was an important step forward in moving countries to address the challenge of reducing mercury in the environment.