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Crazy like an Arctic Fox
May 10, 2013 8:07 AM   Subscribe

Scientific American reports: "An isolated population of Arctic foxes that dines only on marine animals seems to be slowly succumbing to mercury poisoning." Though a definitive causal link is difficult to establish, an isolated population of arctic foxes on Russia's Mednyi Island is believed to be collapsing due to mercury contamination as a result of its seafood-heavy diet. Where does all that mercury in the environment come from anyway? Why, it's another biproduct of burning fossil fuels, of course, and predictably, rates of mercury pollution are only expected to increase. In some places in the US, even rainwater is showing high levels of contamination.

The neurological risks of so-called Mad Hatter Syndrome from mercury exposure have been understood for so long as to have nearly been forgotten in the fog of history. But recent findings that environmental mercury exposure may be even more dangerous than previously thought have led to renewed calls for international cooperation to address the problem, while critics argue that a recent treaty adopted by 140 countries doesn't go nearly far enough.
posted by saulgoodman (25 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
All these decades of collectively shitting where we eat are rapidly catching up with us.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:12 AM on May 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


So, I guess those lower crimes rates from dropping lead exposure are kind of a temporary thing, then, huh?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:40 AM on May 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Sweet...how long til I can douse myself in a river and emerge as the Sliver Surfer??
posted by spicynuts at 8:53 AM on May 10, 2013


Ah, mercury. Sweetest of the transition metals.
posted by xedrik at 9:52 AM on May 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I am not a scientist, but I am passingly familiar with coal power emissions standards and I understand that they have become more and more strict over time. I can't read the paper on the expected increase in mercury levels, but I would guess that it's Asia that's the main problem.

I found this part of the 'Recent Findings' link interesting:

"Government studies have determined that dental amalgam is by far the largest source of mercury in sewers and sewer sludge, with dental amalgam the largest source and waste excretion from those with amalgam the second largest source(13e)."

I wouldn't have guessed that. Reading on, I see this:

"However it should be remembered that the largest sources of mercury air emissions are coal power plants and incinerators, with additional significant contributions from power plants burning bunker oil, and these are also significant sources of mercury in Florida's streams, lakes, and bays(16)."

It should be noted that this is 2002 data and regulations must be stricter at this point.

Finally, I will be that guy and point out that while elevated mercury levels in nature suck, cheap power allows much of the world to enjoy immense benefits which have greatly increased both standard of living and length of life. Those benefits greatly outweigh the risks associated with mercury poisoning.

I'm not arguing that we should spray mercury everywhere. I will clearly state that I want less mercury in the fish I eat, but let's have a little perspective that reducing mercury comes with associated costs.
posted by Phreesh at 10:09 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


and regulations must be stricter at this point.

Yeah, they must be. Just like we must have tightened up the rules after the Gulf spill, and we must have really tightened up financial regulation since Halliburton and the global financial crisis. Regulations always just get stricter and more effective over time. Of course they do. It's a fundamental law of nature. (Actually, most regulations have become more and more voluntary and increasingly are set and enforced by the regulated industries themselves since about the 1980s and that trend has only barely slowed-down under Obama.)
posted by saulgoodman at 10:17 AM on May 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


...and the air is cleaner, the water less polluted and vehicles far more efficient. What a terrible system!!
posted by Phreesh at 10:25 AM on May 10, 2013


The Card Cheat: "All these decades of collectively shitting where we eat are rapidly catching up with us."

At least shit acts as fertilizer.
posted by symbioid at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perfect is the enemy of the good but those things you mentioned would be a hell of a lot better in a stricter regulatory framework.These things are slipping now, that's the problem.
posted by lordaych at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2013


Ok, fuel efficiency is steadily improving nut we could've been a hell of a lot further along if it weren't for Reagan and his meddling cronies whacking CAFE standards, syngas, and anything else that stood to benefit humanity as a whole. Fuck that guy
posted by lordaych at 10:33 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?
posted by indubitable at 10:49 AM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


...and the air is cleaner, the water less polluted and vehicles far more efficient. What a terrible system!!

What? Where? Ocean acidification? The fpp link? The Gulf Spill? Where are you getting this evidence of improvement from, because I'd sure like to see it (as it might make me feel a little better).

Certain kinds of very visible pollution have declined in parts of the US (the kind of air pollution that produces smog, for example, has mostly been out-sourced to China in recent years in response to better air-quality standards in the US, but there's no evidence the picture globally has improved one bit...)

But water is definitely not getting cleaner, with new advisories against pregnant women drinking tap water in many parts of the US, for example (EPA PDF warning).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:49 AM on May 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Mercury poisoning from seafood goes way, way beyond mere "Mad Hatter Syndrome."
posted by Sys Rq at 10:53 AM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The US EPA says that US GHGs have declined. They're roughly at 1994 levels and that's with a much larger economy.

The study is limited in geography, but the USGS says that water pollution (i.e. ph, nitrogren, phosphorus) in the US Southwest is generally flat or declining.

I've done a few google searches to find some trending reports and it's surprisingly difficult to find trending data.

Returning to the realm of opinion, it's my general finding that people are much more pessimistic about the current state of the environment than reality. We are much more aware of the environment than we were 20, 30, 50 years ago, so we are hyper-concerned when things like the gulf spill happen and we forget about the amazing strides we've made in so many areas.

I will also return to the original post and make note that the beneficial health effects of consuming fish arguable outweigh the risks associated with mercury. The authors of the people admit as much.
posted by Phreesh at 11:18 AM on May 10, 2013


Fish and sea mammals are not the same things. They concentrate mercury and other toxins in different ways at different places in the food chain.

I've eaten probably a few hundred pounds of sea mammal meat (whale, seal, walrus) over the last 7 years. I have no symptoms or signs of elevated mercury.

Yet.
posted by spitbull at 11:34 AM on May 10, 2013


Denial ain't just a polluted river in Egypt.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:36 AM on May 10, 2013


"I've eaten probably a few hundred pounds of sea mammal meat (whale, seal, walrus) over the last 7 years. I have no symptoms or signs of elevated mercury."

Try eating the blubber and getting back to us. Mercury only accumulates in the fatty tissues.
posted by Colonel Panic at 12:20 PM on May 10, 2013


According to the EPA: "Coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions to the air in the United States, accounting for over 50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions."

This document [pdf] suggests that India produces twice as much as North America, and China four times as much. The numbers are from 2005, so I suspect they're even worse now. Actually China's numbers are especially bad since they don't include an almost equal amount from non-ferrous metal production.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:19 PM on May 10, 2013


Dude, I mostly have eaten blubber, which is most of what those animals are made of.

And what's with the attitude? Does my experience defy your worldview?

I know plenty of 80-something year old Inuit elders who have eaten nothing but sea mammal blubber for protein for most of their lives. Mostly they don't seem to die of anything directly related to mercury toxicity. Doesn't mean it isnt in there, and Inuit hunting communities do worry about this and test their meat regularly, especially whales that feed on krill like bowheads.

On the other hand bowheads appear not to get cancer and live for several hundred years, go figure, unless killed by an Inuit hunter.

Okay with you if keep eating whales? I'll take the consequences like a man. Whale blubber is delicious.
posted by spitbull at 1:34 PM on May 10, 2013


Ok, fuel efficiency is steadily improving nut we could've been a hell of a lot further along if it weren't for Reagan and his meddling cronies whacking CAFE standards, syngas, and anything else that stood to benefit humanity as a whole. Fuck that guy

Fuel efficiency? Mercury comes from coal plants, not cars. The problem is that while the US is cutting back on coal plants, China and India are building a new coal plants at an incredible pace. Germany's also building new coal, thanks to all the solar and wind farms it's built which need baseload backup power, and its (irrational) aversion to nuclear.
posted by Dasein at 1:37 PM on May 10, 2013


And what's with the attitude? Does my experience defy your worldview?

Honestly, it's your attitude I find most baffling. Do you want mercury in your delicious whale blubber, or what? I really have no idea what position you're trying to argue here.

On the other hand bowheads appear not to get cancer and live for several hundred years, go figure, unless killed by an Inuit hunter.

On the other other hand, blubber contains carcinogenic PCBs. And mercury. Enjoy!
posted by Sys Rq at 2:10 PM on May 10, 2013


I really have no idea what position you're trying to argue here.

I do not think he wants mercury in whale meat. I read spitbull as making an important and nuanced point: yes, mercury pollution is a terrible thing and should be dealt with, and the Inuit people he refers to are aware of it and testing for it. On the other hand, his comment reminds us, don't fall into the first world trap of imagining all subsistence communities as ruined, wasted, victims of a totally devastated world.
posted by third rail at 3:02 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe we should burn the whale blubber for energy and eat the coal.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:03 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


these bastards are pumping our vixen full of metal goddammit, do something about it
posted by nervousfritz at 9:27 PM on May 10, 2013


Fish: The Most Dangerous Food on the Planet?
posted by homunculus at 12:21 AM on May 11, 2013


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