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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Mercury and Loons

Air Date: Week of September 29, 2000

Researchers have said for some time that particles from coal-fired power plants may cause as many as 30,000 premature deaths among humans each year in the United States. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is highlighting another health hazard from coal-burning and incinerators: mercury. Burning coal and trash sends mercury into the atmosphere, where it can be carried hundreds of miles until it falls into lakes and streams. By year's end, the EPA says there will be new rules to limit mercury emissions. The rules will be phased in, but as far as the state of Maine is concerned they can't come too soon. Lakes there already register some of the most toxic levels of mercury in the nation, with a telling impact on one particular bird. Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Researchers have said for some time that particles from coal-fired power plants may cause as many as 30,000 premature deaths among humans each year in the United States. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is highlighting another health hazard from coal-burning and incinerators: mercury. Burning coal and trash sends mercury into the atmosphere, where it can be carried hundreds of miles until it falls into lakes and streams. By year's end, the EPA says there will be new rules to limit mercury emissions. The rules will be phased in, but as far as the state of Maine is concerned they can't come too soon. Lakes there already register some of the most toxic levels of mercury in the nation, with a telling impact on one particular bird. Maine Public Broadcasting's Naomi Schalit reports.

SCHALIT: Once mercury reaches water, it's turned into a highly-toxic organic form called methyl mercury. Fish in mercury-laden lakes become contaminated with it, and humans who eat those fish are at risk. The methyl mercury can use neurological and developmental damage in fetuses and young children. But what does methyl mercury do to the wildlife that ingest it?

(Items drop into boat; voices)

NEAL: We need a bigger boat.

SCHALIT: For the last decade, biologists at Falmouth, Maine's Biodiversity Research Institute have been studying the effect of mercury on loons. They are interested in loons because the fish-eating birds are the top of the aquatic environment's food chain, and the biologists believe the loons are thus the best indicators of a particular water body's environmental health. High-mercury loons mean a high-mercury lake, for example. And they are interested in what mercury does to loons. Institute founder Dave Evers was the first person to develop an effective way of capturing the elusive birds in order to take blood and feather samples. Tonight, loon researchers Chris DeSorbo, Brian Olsen, and Maria Neal prepare to cast off and leave this dock at the foot of Lake Aziscohos in northwestern Maine.

DeSORBO: Do you want to start off? First, Barry will go in. You drive. Maria will light. Then we can switch around; maybe I'll drive, you net.

NEAL: [Okay. That's good.

(Motor starts up)

SCHALIT: It's a chilly night, about 9:30. We're at the southern end of the lake, heading north. The biologists are thankful that the night is clouded over and the bright moon is obscured. They don't want to be seen by the loons they've come here to catch.

(A loon calls)

SCHALIT: DeSorbo edges the boat into a cove on the lake's western shore. He was out on reconnaissance earlier today and knows there's a loon pair and their chick here.

(Loon calls)

DeSORBO: My guess is, that bird has a chick, so let's go for this bird first.

SCHALIT: DeSorbo edges further in. Maria Neal perches in the aluminum boat's bow, scanning the water with a huge searchlight. Bats sweep in and out of the darkness, flitting about her head. Brian Olsen plays tinny-sounding loon calls from a megaphone.

(Loon calls; the boat moves over water)

SCHALIT: Bat brings the birds closer. Finally, the researchers dazzle one with a searchlight, and move quickly to scoop it out of the water with a huge salmon net. If it wasn't being done in the name of science, this would be called loon-jacking.

(Splashing; the loon complains)

SCHALIT: Towels are thrown over the bird and he quiets down, but not before the frightened loon defecates all over us. Something he will do several more times before the night is over.

(Loon complains)

NEAL: Hey, found your gloves. Let's get out of here.

(The engine starts up)

SCHALIT: Over in a nearby cove, they beach the boat. The loon's brought ashore and Olsen holds it firmly in his lap.

OLSEN: We're going to take some blood, feathers, and band him so we can ID him later without having to catch him. And take a few measurements, and let him go.

SCHALIT: The blood and feathers they take will be used to measure the amount of mercury in this loon's system. Tonight's the first time they've worked up this bird, but earlier this year Biodiversity Research Institute scientists analyzed five years worth of data they'd collected on loons throughout northern New England and New York State. And they came up with an alarming statistic that for the first time showed concrete effects of mercury on loon reproduction in the U.S. Birds with the highest levels of mercury, found on lakes that like this one have high mercury levels in the water, reproduce at half the rate of birds with low mercury levels. Biologist Chris DeSorbo.

DeSORBO: If we look at all the high-mercury birds of our study and compare how many birds hatched, and then of those how many fledged, actually survived, for high-mercury birds it's 55 percent lower than the low-mercury birds.

SCHALIT: About a third of Maine's loons show those high mercury levels. In New Hampshire and Vermont, about one-fifth of the birds show those levels. Drew Major is an environmental contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Concord, New Hampshire. He says the documentation of loons’ reproduction problems is just the ammunition regulators and environmentalists need to take action.

MAJOR: We're looking at about 30 to 33 percent of the population in Maine having mercury levels high enough to actually impair the reproduction. It's a fairly strong argument that you should probably do something to lessen the impact.

SCHALIT: Major says the data must be used to press for limits on mercury emissions. Emissions that fall on New England's lakes from downwind sources like coal-fired power plants and municipal incinerators in the Midwest and Northeast.

MAJOR: We need to actually be able to document that there are effects to wildlife, so that when both the states and EPA approach these emitters they have data to show them that, yes, what you're putting in the air is damaging our environment, so you need to actually decrease the amount of emissions that you allow to escape.

SCHALIT: There's a deadline looming. The Environmental Protection Agency must decide by year's end whether or not to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

(Splashing water)

SCHALIT: Just after midnight, vials of blood and feathers are labeled and stashed. It's time to return the bird to the lake.

DeSORBO: You got a good grip on him? Okay. So, if you can get him in real deep so his feet don't touch, okay, that would be good. And you want to light the boat so he doesn't run into it.

SCHALIT: Loons may not be the only animals affected by the mercury in fish. Scientists are now embarking on studies of other fish-eating wildlife, such as mink and otter, to determine whether they, too, are being harmed by methyl mercury.

(Splashing)

SCHALIT: Silky water stretches for miles around us. The northern lights drape pulses of green and white across the far-away sky.

(Loon calls)

SCHALIT: But there's something wrong with this picture. Scientists say that unless the unseen mercury out here can be reduced, the essential sound of this place, the thrilling call of the loon, will be heard less and less over time.

(Splashing; loon calls)

SCHALIT: For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit.

 

 

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