Mercury levels in Florida Everglades wildlife have dropped more than 75% the last decade. Guest host Bruce Gellerman talks with Tom Atkeson, mercury coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about the state’s successful effort to reduce mercury emissions from incinerators.
GELLERMAN: There is some positive news about mercury pollution, and residents of south Florida and the Everglades can breathe a bit easier. But only a little bit easier. According to a new state report, the amount of mercury in fish and wildlife in the region is down dramatically. Tom Atkeson is the mercury coordinator with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. Dr. Atkeson, thank you for joining us.
ATKESON: It’s my pleasure.
GELLERMAN: So, Dr. Atkeson, how dramatically are the mercury levels down in South Florida?
ATKESON: Mercury in wading birds and fish from the Everglades are down between 75 and 80 percent over the last 10 or 15 years since we began monitoring. And we’re very pleased to have seen that.
GELLERMAN: Why are they going down?
ATKESON: Well, earlier in the 90s, DEP took some progressive steps to try to control the emissions of mercury from some of the local industries in southern Florida, which we understand now tended to have more of a local effect then was thought at the time.
GELLERMAN: And DEP is the Department of Environmental Protection?
ATKESON: Correct. And so there have been dramatic reductions in the uses of mercury in commercial and industrial processes. And there have been substantial declines in mercury emissions from incinerators and other sources in south Florida, which have significantly reduced the deposition of mercury from the atmosphere into the Everglades itself.
GELLERMAN: So, the mercury kind of comes through these smokestacks, goes in the air, and then kind of falls down. The birds eat it, and then it winds up in them.
ATKESON: It falls into the Everglades, and it quickly partitions to the organic matter in the water, to the emergent vegetation, and into the sediments. But then it takes a while to make its way through the process of transformation to methyl mercury, and then accumulation up the food web. And it’s really that that poses risks to humans and wildlife in the Everglades.
(Courtesy of USGS)
GELLERMAN: So, how do you test these fish and these fowl? Do you actually have to kill them to get a sample?
ATKESON: The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission has the fisheries, biologists and the equipment, and they do all the sampling to determine the levels of mercury each year from a number of places throughout the Everglades. And the birds are a lot easier because there are biologists that go into the nesting colonies in the spring when the birds are fledging their young. And they’re there to check for things like nesting success and the health of the colony. And while they’re there handling and measuring some of the chicks, they can just pull a couple of the new feathers. And that’s all we need to assay the body burden of mercury in those young egrets.
GELLERMAN: And so the level in the egrets has gone down how much?
ATKESON: About 80 percent.
GELLERMAN: That’s pretty dramatic.
ATKESON: It is pretty dramatic, and it’s happened much more quickly than we ever dared hope.
GELLERMAN: What had you expected?
ATKESON: Well, there was some research done in Sweden a couple of decades ago that was the best in the world prior to the late 80s, early 90s, when more work began in North America. But at one time it was thought that it might take even centuries, perhaps, if you effected a control policy before you would see the benefits of that in lowered levels in fish and wildlife. So it turns out that the Everglades responds much more rapidly than we dared hope. But also some of the good news is that we’re generally seeing declining mercury levels in many lakes in eastern North America.
GELLERMAN: You know, Dr. Atkeson, the industry group Edison Electric Institute estimates that 40 to 70 percent of the mercury comes from beyond our borders, that it’s blown here by the winds. So, by cleaning it up locally, are we actually getting rid of a problem?
ATKESON: I mean, there is a global cycle of mercury. I think that’s well documented, although a lot of the details about that global pool of mercury that washes around the Earth is poorly understood. But clearly, it influences, particularly in the northern hemisphere, everywhere to some degree all the time. But it doesn’t necessarily dominate the flux in most parts of the country. And so, even though it’s there and ever-present, in areas where there are significant local emissions those can outweigh the influence of this long-distance transport into our state or some other region for that matter.
GELLERMAN: So, what is the lesson that we can learn from the south Florida experience?
ATKESON: The south Florida experience shows that if you can effectively control the mercury emissions in your airshed you will see deposition reductions in your same local area, say within a hundred kilometers of the source region. And you’ll see it fairly fast, that you’ll see the effects of that show up in declining levels of fish and wildlife within a period of a few years to maybe, at the extreme, 20 to 25 years. And so it’s a problem that can be addressed, at least to some degree, and the results will be evident in a reasonable period of time.
GELLERMAN: Tom Atkeson is mercury coordinator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Dr. Atkeson, thank you very much.
ATKESON: And, thank you.
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