Songbirds Give Clues to Air Pollution
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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.
How does mercury get in the air?
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.
If mercury contaminates fish, where do songbirds come in?
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.
What is The Nature Conservancy doing?
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.
What are some solutions to the problem of mercury pollution?
- Greater investment in a mercury monitoring network. This would allow us to better assess the extent of this problem, and if current efforts to reduce mercury like the recent Mercury Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule that requires coal-fired power plants to update their mercury pollution control technologies, are enough to result in improving the areas that are damaged.
- Continued research to learn more about this issue. This includes altering some management practices to reduce mercury emissions, such as some forestry practices and the management of water levels in our reservoirs.
- More support for local, regional, and global efforts to reduce mercury. There is no question that mercury is coming from multiple sources, and therefore efforts to reduce a single source, while helpful, are likely not to be enough. Let your legislators know that mercury is a problem you care about, and want to fix.