Home » Mercury » Level 3 » Question 3


3. What are the impacts of mercury on the environment?

  • 3.1 How does mercury accumulate in organisms?
  • 3.2 How is wildlife affected?
  • 3.3 How may certain ecosystems be affected?

3.1 How does mercury accumulate in organisms?

The source document for this Digest states:

A very important factor in the impacts of mercury to the environment is its ability to build up in organisms and up along the food chain. Although all forms of mercury can accumulate to some degree, methylmercury is absorbed and accumulates to a greater extent than other forms. Inorganic mercury can also be absorbed, but is generally taken up at a slower rate and with lower efficiency than is methylmercury. The biomagnification of methylmercury has a most significant influence on the impact on animals and humans. Fish appear to bind methylmercury strongly, nearly 100 percent of mercury that bioaccumulates in predator fish is methylmercury. Most of the methylmercury in fish tissue is covalently bound to protein sulfhydryl groups. This binding results in a long half-life for elimination (about two years). As a consequence, there is a selective enrichment of methylmercury (relative to inorganic mercury) as one moves from one trophic level to the next higher trophic level.

Bioaccumulation and biomagnification

The term bioaccumulation refers to the net accumulation over time of metals within an organism from both biotic (other organisms) and abiotic (soil, air, and water) sources.

The term biomagnification refers to the progressive build up of some heavy metals (and some other persistent substances) by successive trophic levels – meaning that it relates to the concentration ratio in a tissue of a predator organism as compared to that in its prey (AMAP, 1998).

In contrast to other mercury compounds the elimination of methylmercury from fish is very slow. Given steady environmental concentrations, mercury concentrations in individuals of a given fish species tend to increase with age as a result of the slow elimination of methylmercury and increased intake due to changes in trophic position that often occur as fish grow to larger sizes (i.e., the increased fish-eating and the consumption of larger prey items). Therefore, older fish typically have higher mercury concentrations in the tissues than younger fish of the same species.

The mercury concentrations are lowest in the smaller, non-predatory fish and can increase many-fold on the way up the food chain. Apart from the concentration in food, other factors affect the bioaccumulation of mercury. Of most importance are the rates of methylation and demethylation by mercury methylating bacteria (e.g., sulphate reducers). When all of these factors are combined, the net methylation rate can strongly influence the amount of methylmercury that is produced and available for accumulation and retention by aquatic organisms. As described in chapter 2, several parameters in the aquatic environment influence the methylation of mercury and thereby its biomagnification. While much is generally known about mercury bioaccumulation and biomagnification, the process is extremely complex and involves complicated biogeochemical cycling and ecological interactions. As a result, although accumulation/magnification can be observed, the extent of mercury biomagnification in fish is not easily predicted across different sites.

At the top levels of the aquatic food web are fish-eating species, such as humans, seabirds, seals and otters. The larger wildlife species (such as eagles, seals) prey on fish that are also predators, such as trout and salmon, whereas smaller fish-eating wildlife (such as kingfishers) tend to feed on the smaller forage fish. In a study of fur-bearing animals in Wisconsin, the species with the highest tissue levels of mercury were otter and mink, which are top mammalian predators in the aquatic food chain. Top avian predators of aquatic food chains include raptors such as the osprey and bald eagle. Thus, mercury is transferred and accumulated through several food web levels (US EPA, 1997). Aquatic food webs tend to have more levels than terrestrial webs, where wildlife predators rarely feed on each other, and therefore the aquatic biomagnification typically reaches higher values.

Source & ©: UNEP Global Mercury Assessment report, Summary of the Report, 
Chapter 5, paragraphs 67 to 70

For more information, see Chapter 5: Impacts of mercury on the environment 

3.2 How is wildlife affected?

The source document for this Digest states:

Methylmercury is a central nervous system toxin, and the kidneys are the organs most vulnerable to damage from inorganic mercury. Severe neurological effects were already seen in animals in the notorious case from Minamata, Japan, prior to the recognition of the human poisonings, where birds experienced severe difficulty in flying, and exhibited other grossly abnormal behaviour. Significant effects on reproduction are also attributed to mercury, and methylmercury poses a particular risk to the developing fetus since it readily crosses the placental barrier and can damage the developing nervous system.
In birds, adverse effects of mercury on reproduction can occur at egg concentrations as low as 0.05 to 2.0 mg/kg (wet weight). Eggs of certain Canadian species are already in this range, and concentrations in the eggs of several other Canadian species continue to increase and are approaching these levels.

The levels of mercury in Arctic ringed seals and beluga whales have increased by 2 to 4 times over the last 25 years in some areas of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. In warmer waters as well, predatory marine mammals may also be at risk. In a study of Hong Kong’s population of hump-backed dolphins, mercury was identified as a particular health hazard, more than other heavy metals.

Source & ©: UNEP Global Mercury Assessment report, Summary of the Report, 
Chapter 5, paragraphs 71 to 73

For more information, see Chapter 5: Impacts of mercury on the environment 

3.3 How may certain ecosystems be affected?

The source document for this Digest states:

Recent evidence suggests that mercury is responsible for a reduction of micro-biological activity vital to the terrestrial food chain in soils over large parts of Europe – and potentially in many other places in the world with similar soil characteristics. Preliminary critical limits to prevent ecological effects due to mercury in organic soils have been set at 0.07-0.3 mg/kg for the total mercury content in soil.

On the global scale, the Arctic region has been in focus recently because of the long-range transport of mercury. However, impacts from mercury are by no means restricted to the Arctic region of the world. The same food web characteristics - and a similar dependence on a mercury contaminated food source - are found in specific ecosystems and human communities in many countries of the world, particularly in places where a fish diet is predominant.

Rising water levels associated with global climate change may also have implications for the methylation of mercury and its accumulation in fish. For example, there are indications of increased formation of methylmercury in small, warm lakes and in many newly flooded areas.

Source & ©: UNEP Global Mercury Assessment report, Summary of the Report, 
Chapter 5, paragraphs 74 to 76

For more information, see Chapter 5: Impacts of mercury on the environment 

Themes covered
Publications A-Z

Get involved!

This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!