RE: “Mercury Madness, Canada’s Mismanagement of a Toxic Compound”
Mercury pollution was first identified in Canada in late 1968 when several chlor-alkali producers were found to discharge mercury. At the time I was Supervisor of Laboratory and Field Service at Beak Consultants. Beak was the first Canadian commercial environmental laboratory to perform quantitative analysis of both organic and inorganic mercury. We undertook research that showed that elemental mercury could be transformed through the food chain by a micro biological methylation process that was influenced by certain limnological conditions. The published research demonstrated how and why elevated levels of methyl mercury were found in fish in Canadian water sheds. Several First Nations groups sued chlor-alkali producers over fish mercury contamination and to this day there continues to be a debate over the validity of the anthropogenic mercury link. Recall that the Minimata mercury related deaths were caused by the release of organic mercury from a chemical plant.
I raise this as a brief background to help understand the confusion that still persists in Canada over mercury pollution.
Your cover title “Mercury Madness, Canada’s Mismanagement of a Toxic Compound” smacks of yellow press. Our Federal and Provincial governments should be commended for their diligent handling of the mercury crisis more that 30 years ago when industrial mercury discharge was brought under control. The mercury waste management concerns raised by Morawski and Lourie pale by comparison to Canada’s valid watershed food chain concerns. The rationale for their article is misleading as it assumes that readers accept the notion that mercury is bad and toxic and accordingly concludes that we are not good product stewards. Not true… I am not aware of a single case of documented human poisoning from elemental mercury. I am not postulating that we add mercury to our diet, rather let us focus our limited resources on real environmental crisis issues such as urban air quality and sanitation in developing nations.
Keep up the good work… especially those biting editorials!
Douglas G. Langley
Vice President Environmental Division
Our Authors’ Reply
Our article brings to light the issue of mercury within the context of recent medical research that highlights the neurotoxic effects of low-levels of mercury that are now pervasive (and increasing) in the global environment. This mercury is partly from natural sources (general scientific consensus suggests 50 per cent or less) and the remainder from industrial releases and mercury product disposal.
A contemporary assessment of mercury pollution points to the much more subtle and difficult to detect neurobehavioural problems associated with chronic, low-level exposure.
The issue is that much of the mercury used in products ultimately ends up in aquatic ecosystems where it methylates and enters the food-chain.
Recent medical research has led to a lowering of the US FDA mercury allowable dose limits, frequent FDA warnings to pregnant mothers to not eat any fish species with potentially elevated mercury, and to product and waste bans across the United States and in Europe. Canada was a global leader in researching and taking action on mercury 35 years ago. Today however, Canada trails the majority of western nations in implementing relatively simple, cost-effective solutions to mercury abatement; namely restricting mercury use and disposal practices, and providing incentives to encourage product stewardship, which is simply not happening in Canada on a serious scale.
Clarissa Morawski & Bruce Lourie