What is Mercury?

Mercury is a highly toxic element that becomes an air pollutant largely through emissions from coal-fired power plants. It is also broken free from rock and soil by acidic water. Small amounts are also contained in the same pollution that causes acid rain.

Dangers of Mercury in Ecosystems

Mercury can collect in the body tissue of fish. This build-up of mercury has major health implications not only for fish, but also other species that consume them. Birds such as loons, ducks, eagles, herons, and others consume large quantities of fish. Mammals such as fishers, bears and people are also at risk.

Mercury Facts

  • Mercury levels are high and pervasive in northeastern North America, including the Adirondacks.
  • Research shows that many animals, even forest songbirds, have elevated mercury burdens. Based on these findings, it is increasingly clear that mercury can no longer be viewed as strictly an aquatic pollutant.
  • Mercury is an element that is found in rocks in the earth's crust. Through mining and industrial processes, mercury is brought to the earth's surface and used in manufacturing, electricity generation, and consumer products (such as lamps, thermometers and dental material). Eventually, the mercury is emitted to the air or discharged to water as a byproduct of combustion or improper waste disposal. Once in air and water, mercury presents a risk to ecological and human health.
  • Mercury is a neurotoxin. Adults, children, and developing fetuses are at risk from ingestion exposure to mercury. The most common way people are exposed to any form of mercury is by eating fish containing mercury.
  • Once in the human body, mercury interferes with the brain and nervous system. Prenatal or early infant exposure to mercury can cause a host of health issues in humans including mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, developmental disorders which can delay motor and communication skills, and learning disabilities. Scientists are now studying links between mercury exposure and autism. Adult exposure can cause memory and vision loss, tremors, and numbness in extremities. Scientists are also studying links between mercury and heart disease.

Federal Mercury Regulations

On March 16, 2011, the U.S. EPA released its proposed rule for mercury and other air toxics. It was finalized by the EPA in December 2011. This rule, now known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, for the first time ever, would mandate reductions in mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. This rule replaced the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which was proposed in 2005 and thrown out by the courts in 2008. The projected 90 percent reductions over the following three years had substantial human health and environmental benefits.

In 2018, despite no request to do so from affected industries, the Trump administration proposed a modification of the MATS. The EPA wants to ban federal regulators from weighing the indirect benefits, or side-benefits, to public health when it compares the costs and benefits of mercury reductions. For example, reducing mercury emissions requires power plants to make changes to fuels and combustion that also reduce their emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain and smog. This multiplies the benefits of rule, while not affecting the cost. The EPA said such comparisons are unfair to polluters and shouldn’t be allowed when determining whether the cost of a new rule outweighs the benefits.

Department of Health Mercury Warning

The NYS Dept. of Health issued a warning in April 2005 that still stands urging that women of child-bearing age and children younger than 15 avoid eating fish from most waters in the Adirondack and Catskill mountain regions because of mercury contamination. Larger predatory freshwater fish like black bass, walleye and pike generally contain higher levels of methylmercury.

Exposure to methylmercury, an organic form of mercury, through eating contaminated fish and wildlife can affect a developing nervous system as well as the development of organs in a fetus, infants and young children. Some of the contaminants may also build up in women and may be passed on during breast feeding, according to the state Health Department. Studies show that exposure to high levels of methylmercury has caused altered memory and slow attention and language development in young children. Symptoms of exposure include impairment in vision, hearing and speech, muscle weakness, dizziness and a tingling feeling in the fingers and toes.

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