Fall 2005

Research Assistant Ashley Winker and UW-Oshkosh Professor Bob Stelzer investigate the role that deep stream sediments play in removing nitrogen from the environment. Photo: John Karl.

UW Sea Grant

Scientists Launch Mercury Mission
Objective: Capture State of Science at 2006 Conference

By John Karl

Across the globe, policymakers are grappling with the problem of mercury pollution. In Indonesia, Brazil, and several other countries, millions of people continue to use mercury in small-scale gold mining operations, releasing as much as 2 grams of the neurotoxin into the environment for every gram of gold recovered. In the United States, coal-based energy production and the manufacture of certain products—including batteries, dental fillings, vaccines, cosmetics, and weapons—have significantly increased the rate and amount of mercury in the environment, particularly in the atmosphere, lakes, streams, and fish.

To make sound decisions, policymakers need sound science, and in Madison, Wisconsin, more than 40 of the world’s leading mercury researchers gathered to provide just that. Their four-day workshop in July was the first step toward drafting a “declaration” on the state of mercury as a global pollutant, a scientific consensus that could ripple through policy decisions around the world.

At the July workshop, scientists began drafting four concise summary papers on different aspects of mercury pollution. Those summary papers will form the foundation of an international conference to be held next summer, according to James Hurley, conference co-chair and UW Water Resources and Sea Grant’s assistant director for research and outreach. The early jumpstart is part of a strategy to make the Eighth International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant highly focused and policy-relevant, Hurley said.

The conference will be held Aug. 6-11, 2006, and is expected to attract about 800 scientists. At its conclusion, the summary papers will be boiled down to a short statement on the state of the science of environmental mercury.

“We wanted this to be more than just another gathering of scientists independently reporting on their own research,” Hurley said. “We want it to be a real conversation and debate, and we want to give the entire mercury community a chance to discuss the conclusions.”

The time is ripe for a succinct summary of the science of environmental mercury, according to Chris Babiarz, a scientist in environmental chemistry and engineering at UW-Madison and also a member of the conference organizing committee.

Babiarz said scientists developed ultra-clean field sampling techniques and new analytical chemistry procedures about 20 years ago, and research since then has started to answer some old questions.

“It’s a good time to review what we’ve learned,” Babiarz said.

The summary papers started at the July workshop address four broad topics that will be addressed in the four plenary sessions of the conference next summer: (1) societal consequences of mercury pollution; (2) recovery of mercury-contaminated fisheries; (3) health risks and toxicological effects of methylmercury; and (4) identifying sources of atmospheric mercury deposition.

The summary papers will be posted on the conference Web site about six weeks before the event, providing attendees with common starting points for discussion.

Individual talks and poster sessions will be grouped by these four topics and will follow the corresponding plenary sessions, an arrangement Hurley says is intended to maintain focus on the important issues.

Another goal of the planning committee, which has been working for five years, is to make the conference particularly accessible to under-represented groups, including graduate students, beginning professionals, and representatives from developing nations.

After the conference next summer, the organizing committee will attempt to publish the declaration and all four supporting papers in a single issue of a peer-reviewed journal.

Sponsors of the conference so far include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Electric Power Research Institute, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and UW Sea Grant.

For details on attending, sponsoring, or exhibiting at the event, visit the conference Web site, www.mercury2006.org.

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