A renowned Syracuse University Scientist is arriving in Rhode Island to co-chair an international conference on the continued global threat posed by mercury. Civil and environmental engineering professor Dr. Charles Driscoll says the U.S. and most developed countries have reduced emissions of the toxic metal from coal-fired power plants and other sources. Now he says the largest source of mercury pollution comes from developing countries that use it to extract gold from deposits.
"Then they boil the mercury off to concentrate the gold, and that releases into the atmosphere and soil. It's really a poor person's way for gold mining, so it's relatively popular in poor countries. That's a large source of this global air pollution."
Driscoll says that’s a concern for areas like the Arctic and New York’s Adirondacks, both of which have been directly affected by mercury. He says they might seem pristine and far from power plant and industrial pollution, but…
"Because of the sensitivity of these remote areas, they're very susceptible to mercury pollution, and the Arctic is a great example. It's transported globally, and because the mercury that's deposited tends to retain there, and results in lots of contamination like the Adirondacks and the Arctic."
Mercury’s impacts on human and animal health are largely through fish consumption, because it becomes more concentrated on its way up the food chain. The week-long conference that starts Sunday comes just a few weeks ahead of the enforcement of a global treaty on mercury, which Driscoll says requires countries to control new and existing mercury sources.
"We're really trying to focus for our meeting on this treaty, what are the goals when implementing the treaty, how it will be implemented, how will the effects of the treaty be monitored."
Driscoll says carefully watching mercury is essential now more than ever because the warmer, wetter conditions brought on by climate change are speeding up and concentrating the impact of mercury on the environment. He and conference co-chair Celia Chen from Dartmouth college are anticipating attendees from 57 countries.