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Mercury in Stream Ecosystems

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Mercury in Aquatic Ecosystems

Updated: 3 June 2010

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is mercury a concern?. 1

Are fish unsafe to eat? Where can I find information about the potential health effects?. 2

How does mercury get into lakes and streams?. 3

Has mercury always been in fish? Is atmospheric mercury natural?. 3

Does mercury naturally leach from the minerals in a watershed?. 4

Where do we find the highest fish-mercury concentrations?. 4

What environmental characteristics were related to mercury in fish?. 4

How do the results from this study relate to current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considerations for a new national mercury regulation?. 4

Who can I contact for more information?. 5

Background References. 5


Why is mercury a concern?

Mercury is one of the most serious contaminants threatening our Nation’s waters because it is a potent neurotoxin in fish, wildlife, and humans.  It is a global pollutant that ultimately makes its way into every aquatic ecosystem through one of two routes:  Point-source discharges or atmospheric deposition.  Atmospheric deposition is the primary source of mercury to most aquatic ecosystems.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), emissions from coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury to the atmosphere. 

Mercury is deposited from the atmosphere primarily as inorganic mercury.  Methylation—the conversion of inorganic mercury to organic methylmercury—is the most important step in the mercury cycle because it greatly increases toxicity and potential for accumulation in aquatic biota. Nearly all of the mercury found in fish tissue is methylmercury.

As methylmercury is formed in an ecosystem, some portion of it is taken up or bioaccumulated by organisms such as in algae. Animals higher up in the food web accumulate mercury from their food.  Methylmercury in aquatic food webs increases at every trophic level (biomagnifies), reaching highest levels at the top of the food web such as predatory fish (fish that eat mostly other fish). Methylmercury levels in predatory fish are typically more than one million times higher than methylmercury levels in water that the fish inhabit.

Are fish unsafe to eat? Where can I find information about the potential health effects?

Some fish may be unsafe to eat because of high mercury levels; however, fish are an important part of a healthy diet, so the best thing people can do is to become informed.  Visit websites of the USEPA, FDA, and your State’s health agency to find out which fish from which waterbodies in your area are safe or not safe to eat.  The USEPA and FDA provide guidelines so that the public can make informed decisions about which fish species are safe to eat—these agencies recommend including fish as part of a healthy diet but urge us to choose kinds (species) of fish that are lowest in mercury.  They also let us know which fish to minimize or avoid. The USEPA has established a criterion of 0.3 part per million (mg/kg, wet weight) for methylmercury in fish for the protection of people who consume average amounts of fish. 

The USEPA has established a web site with information on fish-consumption advisories associated with mercury contamination.  This site links to both Federal and State advisories. State agencies typically produce more locally tailored information, including maps, lists of fish species collected from specific water bodies, average concentrations of mercury, and specific consumption guidelines.  Fish consumption advice is often tailored to sensitive populations (children and women of child-bearing age) and non-sensitive populations. Forty-eight of 50 States have fish consumption advisories. This means that 48 out of 50 States have at least one commonly consumed fish species that exceeds the 0.3 ppm USEPA criterion for the protection of people who eat average amounts of fish.  Mercury is currently the second leading cause of impaired waters in the United States, accounting for over 9,000 impaired waters (as of 26 August 2009). 

How does mercury get into lakes and streams?

The main source to most aquatic environments in the US is from atmospheric deposition (rain, snow, dry particles).  Some water bodies also receive mercury from direct discharge of industrial wastes, mining wastes, or naturally occurring mercury minerals. See the following questions “Has mercury always been in fish? Is atmospheric mercury natural?” 

Has mercury always been in fish? Is atmospheric mercury natural? 

Although there has always been some mercury in the atmosphere from natural sources (volcanoes and degassing of elemental mercury from the oceans), human activities have increased the amount of mercury emitted to, and deposited from the atmosphere.  Anthropogenic (human-caused) sources of mercury to the atmosphere are largely from combustion of materials that contain mercury, with coal-combustion (electric utility boilers and commercial/industrial boilers) being the largest source in the U.S., according to the 1997 EPA Report to Congress.   

In 2007, an international panel of experts concluded, “remote sites in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres demonstrates about a threefold (2X–4X) increase in Hg [mercury] deposition since preindustrial times” (Lindberg and others, 2007).  In the most remote parts of North America, for example lakes in Glacier Bay, Alaska, current rates of atmospheric mercury deposition are about double what was observed in pre-industrial times (Engstrom and Swain, 1997).  In the continental U.S., proximity to more mercury emission sources has resulted even larger increases—typically about three to four times pre-industrial rates (Lorey and Driscoll, 1999; Swain and others, 1992; Van Metre and Fuller, 2009).

Does mercury naturally leach from the minerals in a watershed?

Mercury mineralization occurs in very limited areas (see chapter “Environmental Impact of Mercury Mines in the Coast Ranges, California” in USGS Circular 1248).  In areas that lack mercury mineralization, the mercury concentration in parent geologic materials is typically very low, and cannot explain the much higher mercury concentrations observed in sediment in aquatic ecosystems; atmospheric deposition is the predominant source of mercury in ecosystems that lack mercury minerals, or direct industrial or mining inputs of mercury (Fitzgerald and others, 1998; Swain and others, 1992; Wiener and others, 2006).  

Where do we find the highest fish-mercury concentrations?

Mercury can be detected in every fish analyzed, from virtually any water body. Mercury is a ubiquitous contaminant, and we are now very good at detecting low levels of mercury. For human and wildlife health, the concern is at what levels is mercury present, and where are fish with mercury levels of concern found?

High levels of mercury in fish are typically found in two general settings:  (1) Waters of the eastern United States with a high density of forest and wetlands in the stream basin—particularly the southeastern coastal plain—have among the highest levels of methylmercury in fish.  (2) Waters with much larger sources of mercury, from historical mining of gold or mercury within the stream’s watershed, also have high methylmercury in fish (Scudder and others, 2009). 

What environmental characteristics are related to mercury in fish?

Mercury levels in fish are related to the concentration of methylmercury in water; the density or abundance of evergreen forest and wooded wetland in a stream’s watershed; increasing dissolved organic carbon concentration; and decreasing pH (Scudder and others, 2009).  The positive correlation with wetland abundance was expected because researchers have long known that these landscapes are particularly conducive to conversion of inorganic mercury to methylmercury.

There are numerous human-influenced disturbances which result in greater conversion of inorganic mercury to methylmercury.  These include reservoir construction (Bodaly and others, 1997) and sulfate loading (a widespread atmospheric pollutant, and occasionally associated with land use) (Drevnick and others, 2007; Gilmour and others, 1998; Jeremiason and others, 2006) .  Such disturbances can increase the amount of methylmercury in aquatic ecosystems, including fish that inhabit those ecosystems, even without a change in mercury inputs .

How do our studies relate to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's considerations for a new national mercury regulation?

Decisions by the USEPA regarding a new national mercury emissions regulation will be significantly aided by the improved scientific understanding of how mercury sources, watershed cycling, and aquatic food webs interact. 

Section 112 of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) identify seven priority air pollutants, of which mercury is one, and require the USEPA to identify the sources of 90% of each pollutant and subject these sources to maximum achievable control technologies.  Current considerations for mercury by the USEPA are specific to coal and oil fired electric utilities. Our studies will help inform CAAA Section112(d)(2), which specify that "any  non-air quality health and environmental impacts" can be considered before making a determination on standards for new or existing sources.  Our study results provide many new insights into factors regulating mercury contamination levels of stream-based food webs, including the importance of methylmercury sources within watersheds.   Finally, the results from this study support the notion that not all locations are equal in terms of how they respond to mercury loads and changes to mercury loads.  It is important for decision makers to realize that different watersheds, and often different areas within the same watershed, may respond differently to changes in atmospheric mercury loads. 

Who can I contact for more information?

Mercury in Stream Ecosystems study coordinator, Mark Brigham (; 763-783-3274

David Krabbenhoft (; 608-821-3843

Mercury study publications and data sets are at: Other water-quality assessments:



Bodaly, R.A., St. Louis, V.L., Paterson, M.J., Fudge, R.J.P., Hall, B.D., Rosenberg, D.M., and Rudd, J.W.M., 1997, Bioaccumulation of mercury in the aquatic food chain in newly flooded areas, in Sigel, A., and Sigel, H., eds., Metal ions in biological systems: Mercury and its effects on environment and biology: New York, Marcel Decker, Inc., p. 259-287.

Drevnick, P.E., Canfield, D.E., Gorski, P.R., Shinneman, A.L.C., Engstrom, D.E., Muir, D.C.G., Smith, G.R., Garrison, P.J., Cleckner, L.B., Hurley, J.P., Noble, R.B., Otter, R.R., and Oris, J.T., 2007, Deposition and cycling of sulfur controls mercury accumulation in Isle Royale fish: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 41, p. 7266-7272.

Engstrom, D.R., and Swain, E.B., 1997, Recent declines in atmospheric mercury deposition in the Upper Midwest: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 31, no. 4, p. 960-967.

Fitzgerald, W.F., Engstrom, D.R., Mason, R.P., and Nater, E.A., 1998, The case for atmospheric mercury contamination in remote areas: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 32, no. 1, p. 1-7.

Gilmour, C.C., Riedel, G.S., Ederington, M.C., Bell, J.T., Benoit, J.M., Gill, G.A., and Stordal, M.C., 1998, Methylmercury concentrations and production rates across a trophic gradient in the northern Everglades: Biogeochemistry, v. 40, p. 327-345.

Jeremiason, J.D., Engstrom, D.R., Swain, E.B., Nater, E.A., Johnson, B.M., Almendinger, J.E., Monson, B.A., and Kolka, R.K., 2006, Sulfate addition increases methylmercury production in an experimental wetland: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 40, p. 3800-3806.

Lindberg, S., Bullock, R., Ebinghaus, R., Engstrom, D., Feng, X., Fitzgerald, W., Pirrone, N., Prestbo, E., and Seigneur, C., 2007, A synthesis of progress and uncertainties in attributing the sources of mercury in deposition: Ambio, v. 36, no. 1, p. 19-32.

Lorey, P., and Driscoll, C.T., 1999, Historical trends of mercury deposition in Adirondack lakes: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 33, no. 5, p. 718-722.

Scudder, B.C., Chasar, L.C., Wentz, D.A., Bauch, N.J., Brigham, M.E., Moran, P.W., and Krabbenhoft, D.P., 2009, Mercury in fish, bed sediment, and water from streams across the United States, 1998-2005: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5109.

Swain, E.B., Engstrom, D.R., Brigham, M.E., Henning, T.A., and Brezonik, P.L., 1992, Increasing rates of atmospheric mercury deposition in midcontinental North America: Science, v. 257, p. 784-787.

Van Metre, P.C., and Fuller, C.C., 2009, Dual-Core Mass-Balance Approach for Evaluating Mercury and 210Pb Atmospheric Fallout and Focusing to Lakes: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 43, no. 1, p. 26-32.

Wiener, J.G., Knights, B.C., Sandheinrich, M.B., Jeremiason, J.D., Brigham, M.E., Engstrom, D.R., Woodruff, L.G., Cannon, W.F., and Balogh, S.J., 2006, Mercury in soils, lakes, and fish in Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)—Importance of atmospheric deposition and ecosystem factors: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 40, p. 6261-6268.


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