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>  News Releases >   2007 >   December

Crossing disciplines to address mercury pollution

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 12/18/07 • Rebecca Bailey • (603) 646-3661

Four members of Dartmouth College's engineering, business, and arts and sciences faculty are collaborating to help curb the social and ecological impacts of mercury pollution in New England.

Even at Dartmouth, where interdisciplinary projects abound, this one stands out, said principal investigator Mark Borsuk, an assistant professor at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. "Not only are we from four different departments, we are overseen by three different deans. The grant proposal needed three times the typical number of signatures."

Photo of Dartmouth faculty
From left to right: Darren Ranco, Richard Howarth, Mark Borsuk. Missing: Andrew King. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

The project is funded by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Collaborative Science and Technology Network for Sustainability program.

The team will apply a combination of economic and social scientific theory, environmental modeling, behavioral experiments, and interviews with "stakeholders," or those affected by mercury pollution. The goal is to identify compelling "indicators" of mercury pollution-ways of characterizing the pollutant's impact that are especially meaningful to the public. For example, a "biological indicator" might be the mercury levels in a popular fish or wildlife species, while a "social indicator" may range from the average number of IQ points a child loses when exposed to high levels of the pollutant, to the number of public meetings attended by members from impacted communities to implement the regulations.

A core aspect of the project is the involvement of traditionally underrepresented minority groups, including rural Native-American and urban African-American communities. These communities may suffer disproportionately high exposure to pollutants, especially under "cap and trade" rules, which set an upper limit for the total amount of a particular pollutant but do not regulate the locations or exposure routes for that pollutant.

"We really do speak different languages and have different backgrounds, but, ultimately, that's what makes the project exciting."

- Mark Borsuk

"A lot of my work has been about critiquing regulatory approaches with regard to environmental justice concerns," said fellow investigator Darren Ranco, an assistant professor of both Native American Studies and Environmental Studies and a member of the Penobscot Nation of Maine. "This project offers the possibility of creating a solution. I don't think there's an inherent conflict between regulatory efficiency and environmental justice."

Borsuk and his colleagues chose to focus on mercury pollution in New England because it remains a significant health threat in the region. Dartmouth investigators have been studying environmental health aspects of mercury for more than a decade.

The team members contribute different methodologies and fields of knowledge. Borsuk is an expert on constructing computer models that predict the outcome of human environmental impacts on natural and social systems. His role in the project is to link specific levels of mercury emissions with the selected indicators. Ranco will oversee group and individual interviews with members of the Penobscot Nation and other affected communities to develop indicators meaningful to those communities. Mercury contamination has particular impact on members of the Penobscot Nation because freshwater fishing is central to their culture. Curtailing fish consumption means the loss not only of dietary choices but also of cultural tradition.

Pat and John Rosenwald Professor Rich Howarth, an environmental economist in the Environmental Studies Program whose work emphasizes mathematical models that integrate economic efficiency, ecological sustainability, and distributional fairness of environmental impacts, will help develop indicators that balance regional economic concerns against environmental sustainability and stakeholder opportunities. Andrew King, associate professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and one of the foremost authorities on issues of business strategy and the natural environment, will oversee interactive behavioral experiments in which participants play the roles of stakeholders to see how various indicators affect their personal choices, political decisions, and social actions.

Working together has been challenging and instructive said Borsuk. "We really do speak different languages and have different backgrounds, but, ultimately, that's what makes the project exciting. We see it as a good example of what the emerging field of 'sustainability science' can be. For any kind of environmental policy to be sustainable in the long term, it must include these different perspectives."

Dartmouth's research into mercury contamination

Mercury is emitted into the air by many sources, including coal-burning power plants. Airborne mercury falls into surface waters where bacteria transform it into methylmercury, a form more easily taken up by plants and animals. This methylmercury "bioaccumulates" as it moves up the food chain from microscopic organisms to fish and water fowl and, lastly, to humans. Scientists have shown that methylmercury can cause brain and nerve damage, and studies indicate that children and developing fetuses are at a disproportionate risk.

The Toxic Metals Research Program at Dartmouth's Center for Environmental Health Sciences has studied the movement of mercury and other heavy metals through the aquatic food web and into the fish that people eat.  It has also examined how people use risk data when making decisions about fish consumption.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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