Mercury in the water: 40% of Europe’s lakes and rivers contaminated
40% of the EU’s surface water bodies are contaminated with levels of mercury, endangering birds and marine mammals. An article by our partner, the Journal de l’Environnement.
The Vidraru dam on the Argeş River in Transylvania. [(Credit: [Tupungato]/Shutterstock)]
Mercury contamination is reaching alarming levels, according to a report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) on 19 September.
Although mercury is one of the ten most dangerous chemicals in the world, excessive concentrations are still observed in 46,000 out of 111,000 European surface water bodies.
These concentrations mainly come from emissions generated by the combustion of coal, lignite and wood and, to a lesser extent, gold mining and certain industrial processes.
Thousand year quicksilver
The catch is that mercury persists in the environment for up to 3,000 years and travels very long distances, the EEA report highlighted.
That is why it can be found in the air, the water, the soil and in animals. In the atmosphere, its current concentrations are 500% higher than natural levels and in oceans they are 200% higher.
Water systems are where mercury proves to be the most dangerous, in its organic form, also known as methylmercury. When consumed by animals, it contaminates the entire food chain.
The report also revealed that approximately 50% of anthropogenic mercury observed in Europe comes from beyond its borders.
Thirty percent comes from the Asian continent alone and it’s the only place in the world where the emissions have increased between 1990 and 2010 (+47%).
Limitations of the Minamata Convention
The bad news is that even urgent major action would not be able to reduce the concentrations down to the levels observed before the industrial age.
Therefore, the banning of certain industrial products and processes – imposed by the Minamata Convention signed by the EU and entered into force in August 2017 – was not sufficient to stem this pollution.
This is a pollution that is expected to further increase as a result of global warming. According to a study published in February, it could even skyrocket at the global level because of the melting permafrost.
This article translated by Rob Kirby.
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