Watch a video about this innovative field work studying songbirds and New York's air quality.
When you think of mercury contamination, you probably think of fish. But scientists have now learned that mercury pollution affects many places and species on land—and even the air we breathe.
Here’s what you need to know about this important issue.
Much of the mercury in New York comes from coal-burning plants located in the Midwest. As smokestack emissions from these plants drift eastward, the airborne mercury settles in lakes and streams and transforms into methyl mercury, which is toxic and makes the mercury available for uptake into the food web. As a result, national health organizations advise people to restrict consumption of certain kinds of fish. For example, if you eat one 18” walleye caught in Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Park in New York, as far as mercury goes it is like eating one compact fluorescent light bulb.
Mercury contamination in wildlife has been known for many years, but only recently have we begun to learn that it affects birds that do not live on water and never eat fish. In a study commissioned by the Conservancy in 2006, we found that some songbirds that eat primarily insects are at high risk of mercury poisoning. Mercury levels were high enough that it could affect the birds’ reproductive cycle, and may help explain declining populations of some species like the wood thrush. These results supported other research illustrating that mercury from air pollution that gets into soil can ultimately find its way into the human food chain.
The Nature Conservancy is conducting research to monitor mercury levels in songbirds. Working in partnership with the Biodiversity Research Institute, global leaders in mercury research, this current study began in June 2013 and will continue each summer until 2017. The data compiled will ultimately provide more scientific evidence of the links between ecological health and human health.