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Dartmouth workshop sets research agenda for environmental mercury

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 08/20/08 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661 

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Celia Y. Chen and Nancy Serrell
Celia Y. Chen '78 (left) and Nancy Serrell worked to develop research agenda (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Embracing the belief that an interdisciplinary and coordinated research agenda can have a profound impact on advancing science and influencing policy, a group of experts has developed a roadmap for improving our understanding of how mercury moves through the marine ecosystem and into the fish we eat.

Members of Dartmouth's Toxic Metals Research Program convened the group of 43 leading scientists, environmental regulators, and public health experts in November 2006 to set priorities for a research and biomonitoring agenda that can inform environmental regulation and public health policy. Their report is published in the current issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The group put a priority on monitoring and research across habitats with an integrated approach that considers the poorly understood links among marine sources, biotransfer processes, and bioaccumulation mechanisms that put humans at risk of exposure to mercury. For example, one unanswered question: does the toxic form of mercury produced and bioaccumulated in coastal ecosystems end up in fish such as tuna caught in the open ocean?

"We are intimately connected to the ocean ecosystem," says Celia Chen, a research associate professor of biology at Dartmouth and the lead author of the paper. "For example, seafood is one of the few wild foods still consumed by large numbers of people. Though we know that the mercury found in marine fish and shellfish poses a threat to humans - not to mention the ecosystem itself - we know very little about the physical and geochemical processes that link mercury in the atmosphere to the toxic form found in seafood."

Many of the 43 scientists at the 2006 workshop in Durham, N.H., have done extensive research on the way mercury accumulates in fish and other wildlife that inhabit inland forests, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. The meeting, titled "Fate and Bioavailability of Mercury in Aquatic Ecosystem and Effects on Human Exposure," also included experts on mercury in marine systems. All gathered agreed that insights from freshwater and upland systems should be applied to understanding mercury in marine ecosystems.

Dartmouth's Toxic Metals Research Program has been supported since 1995 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP). The 2006 workshop, funded by the SBRP with support from the New Hampshire SeaGrant Program, addressed three major themes: the biogeochemical cycling of mercury in marine ecosystems, the mechanisms of mercury transfer in the food web, and the risk of human exposure of mercury from seafood and shell fish consumption.

"Science should inform regulatory and public health decisions about issues such as the accumulation of mercury in our environment," says Nancy Serrell, the director of outreach at Dartmouth and a co-author on the paper. "The Superfund Basic Research Program provides support for workshops such as these that interpret findings in terms useful to decision makers that incorporate their perspectives into the research agenda."

Future efforts will include convening workshops to compile and evaluate existing mercury data in marine environments and in seafood.

Additional authors on the Environmental Health Perspectives paper include: David C. Evers with the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine; Bethany J. Fleishman formerly with the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program; Kathleen F. Lambert, formerly with the Ecologic: Analysis & Communications in Woodstock, Vt., and currently the Dartmouth Sustainability Manager; Jeri Weiss with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Robert P. Mason with the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Connecticut; and Michael S. Bank with the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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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