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Report finds coal burning in Asia leading to increased mercury in some Great Lakes fish

Dec 4, 2015

Fishing on Lake Michigan.
Credit Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Although domestic clean energy efforts are leading to decreases in mercury pollution in the Great Lakes, a new International Joint Commission report says that increased reliance on fossil fuels overseas poses new concerns.

The IJC report urged the Canadian and U.S. governments to better monitor for mercury in the Great Lakes after noting increased levels of mercury in some fish in some parts of the Great Lakes.

The report said along with natural causes of mercury pollution, increases in mercury emissions from Asia could explain the increase in mercury some fish. Though Canadian and U.S. mercury emissions have decreased significantly since 1990, emissions from China and India have been increasing.

"If we want to assure that fish from the Great Lakes are a source of healthy food, that does not diminish the ability of our children to fully use their brains, we need a better handle on mercury deposition," said Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of IJC, in a press release. "Meeting the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement objective on fish consumption unrestricted by contaminant concerns, will require greater investments in monitoring."

Mercury levels in species of Great Lakes fish.
Credit NOAA

Dave Dempsy, policy advisor with the IJC on the U.S. staff, said scientists have identified massive construction and operations in Asia as factors leading to an increase in global mercury emissions. Though U.S. and Canadian water pollution regulatory efforts, including controls on sources of mercury to water like sewage treatment plants and chlor-alkali factories, as well as converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas, caused a decline in fish mercury levels for over a decade, the concentration of mercury in some fish has steadily been increasing for five to six years.

Considerable mercury contaminating the Great Lakes Basin is originating from foreign countries like China, India and Russia.
Credit International Joint Commission

According to Dempsy, to reduce mercury pollution in the region officials should work with countries in Asia.

The report recommends the U.S. and Canada provide long-term funding and resources toward monitoring the atmospheric deposition of mercury in the Great Lakes. Dempsy said with a heightened global awareness of climate issues, like those discussed at the Paris Climate Change Conference, he hopes to see mercury reduce in the region.

"International diplomacy is key to reducing mercury emissions from entering the Great Lakes from other countries," Dempsy said.

— Allana Akhtar, Michigan Radio Newsroom