The Impact of Mercury Pollution in Europe

According to a new study published in Environmental Health, cleaning up mercury pollution could save the European Union millions of dollars each year.

New research estimates that 1.5 to 2 million children in the European Union (EU) are born with MeHg (neurotoxin methylmercury) exposures far about the safe limit of 0.58µg/g and 200,000 above the WHO recommended maximum of 2.5µg/g. By cleaning up the mercury pollution and decreasing the amount of prenatal exposure to MeHg, the EU could save more than $10 million dollars each year.

Although mercury pollution can occur naturally in the environment by events, such as forest fires, most of the pollution comes from burning fossil fuels. And since marine and fresh water species bioconcentrate MeHg, humans gain the most exposure by eating fish.

Researchers from across Europe used the DEMOCOPHES study of exposure to environmental chemicals to assess the impact of MeHg on humans. Hair samples of child-mother pairs, collected from 17 European countries, demonstrated that, as a lower estimate, 1,866,000 children are born in Europe exposed to toxic levels of MeHg. 232,000 of these are exposed to hazardous levels, which is five times higher than the safe amount. But not every child in Europe is equally at risk. When analysed per country, children born in Portugal and Spain were the most exposed to MeHg, and Hungary the least.

Exposure to MeHg in humans affects brain development, resulting in a lower IQ, and consequently a lower earning potential. The long term cost to society can be calculated as lifetime earning loss per person, although this estimate does not take into account other aspects of brain toxicity or risks of cardiovascular disease in adults. Once MeHg is formed, it cycles though the environment for thousands of years, exposing humans and other species to potentially toxic levels for generations.

Commenting on the research Dr. Elsie Sunderland said, "Mitigating the harm caused by methylmercury requires global-scale cooperation on policies and source reductions. Negotiations by the United Nations Environment Program are currently underway to address mercury emission levels."