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Mercury in the Arctic

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) recently published a detailed scientific assessment on mercury in the Arctic, updating previous assessments made in 1998 and 2004...
Main questions addressed in this latest assessment were:

Where does mercury in the Arctic environment come from, and how does it get there? and

What controls mercury levels in the Arctic and what are the effects on Arctic biota, including Arctic human populations?

Human populations in the Arctic are adversely affected by mercury pollution. Traditional diets in the region often include species of marine mammals and fish which can contain high levels of mercury. Pregnant women, mothers, and children are especially sensitive to increasing mercury concentrations.

A substantial amount of mercury is carried into the Arctic via long-range transport by air and water currents from human sources at lower latitudes. AMAP, in collaboration with UNEP, produced global emissions estimates for 2005. Compared with previous inventories, this showed emissions decreasing in Europe and North America but increasing in Asia.

‘Environmental reservoirs’, such as soils and ocean waters, have been accumulating mercury as a result of human activities during the last 150 years. Mercury can be recirculated from these ‘reservoirs’ and transported to the Arctic. Reducing human and environmental exposure to mercury in the Arctic will ultimately depend on global action to reduce the quantities of mercury entering the ‘environmental reservoirs’.

Mercury in the Arctic environment enters food chains. Methylmercury is an organic mercury compound and one of the most toxic forms of mercury. High levels of methylmercury are found in Arctic top predators which take up the contaminants accumulated by prey at lower levels in the food chain. This is a serious problem for Arctic indigenous peoples who rely on hunting and fishing for their nutritional, social and cultural well-being.

There has been a ten-fold increase in mercury levels in top predators over the past 150 years. Over 80% of this mercury comes from human sources. While some species such as polar bears and marine birds can excrete mercury in their hair and feathers, others such as toothed whales are less able to get rid of mercury.

AMAP's assessment showed that mercury levels in certain Arctic marine species in some regions are rising. Of particular concern are increasing levels in some marine species in Arctic Canada and West Greenland, despite reductions in North American emissions.

Although risks communications, which may include dietary advice, are helping to reduce mercury exposure for some high-risk Arctic residents, this is only a short-term solution. The only true long-term solution is to reduce mercury concentrations in the environment, particularly in species of importance to the traditional/local diet, by reducing global emissions.

This is why information based on AMAP’s 20011 mercury assessment has been fed into the ongoing UNEP process that aims to negotiate a global agreement to reduce mercury emissions by 2013. The UNEP activity is a follow-up to the Arctic Council call for urgent global actions to reduce mercury emissions. At the most recent UNEP international negotiating committee (INC) meeting in Nairobi, in November 2011, key findings of the AMAP assessment were presented at a side event, and the AMAP summary report and a short film were distributed and presented from an Arctic Council booth. This meeting was attended by 800 participants from 150 countries. AMAP is currently collaborating with UNEP to update its global emission inventories report.

To read more results of the 2011 AMAP Mercury in the Arctic Assessment please visit the AMAP website

Read a summary of the Mercury report

View the full scientific report

Watch the film called Mercury Rising.