Maine Wildlife Ranging from Loons to Otters to Bald Eagles at Risk
PORTLAND – Mercury pollution is making its way into nearly every habitat in the U.S., exposing countless species of wildlife to potentially harmful levels of mercury, a new report from the National Wildlife Federation shows.
“This report paints a compelling picture of mercury contamination in Maine and nationally,” says Matt Prindiville, Toxics Policy Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “From loons to bald eagles, bass to brook trout, and otters to snapping turtles, mercury is accumulating in nearly every corner of the food web.”
“Wildlife are truly on the front lines of the mercury problem, and this new research confirms that mercury pollution poses a severe threat to our treasured wildlife,” says Catherine Bowes, manager of NWF’s Northeast mercury campaign and principal author of the report. “The discovery of mercury in so many different species is a wake-up call.”
NWF’s report, Poisoning Wildlife: The Reality of Mercury Pollution, is a compilation of over 65 published studies finding elevated levels of mercury in a wide range of wildlife species. The report highlights mercury levels in fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians living in freshwater, marine, and forest habitats from across the country.
The accumulation of mercury in fish has been well-understood for years, leading Maine and 45 others in the U.S. to issue consumption advisories warning people to limit or avoid eating certain species of fish. However, scientists have recently discovered that mercury accumulates in forest soils, indicating that wildlife that live and feed outside aquatic habitats are also at risk of exposure to mercury.
“Scientific understanding of the extent of mercury contamination in wildlife has expanded significantly in recent years,” says Wing Goodale of the Biodiversity Research Institute, wildlife toxicologist and leading researcher in this field. “We are finding mercury accumulation in far more species, and at much higher levels, than we previously thought was occurring. This poses a very real threat to the health of many wildlife populations, some of which are highly endangered.”
In addition to being a concern for the health of people who eat fish, mercury accumulation also poses a threat to the fish themselves. Poisoning Wildlife pulls together the major findings from over 20 published studies that attribute adverse health impacts on fish, birds, and mammals with elevated mercury levels in those species. Fish with high mercury levels have difficulty schooling and spawning, birds lay fewer eggs and have trouble caring for their chicks, and mammals have impaired motor skills that affect their ability to hunt and find food.
Several states have already taken action to reduce mercury pollution from major sources like waste incinerators, chlorine manufacturers, power plants, and consumer products, and the results are very promising. In places where mercury emissions have been cut, such as Florida, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, mercury levels in fish and wildlife downwind have been reduced in a matter of years, not decades, as scientists have previously thought.
The state of Maine, with persitent urging by NRCM, has led the nation in efforts to reduce in-state sources of mercury pollution, including phasing out the use of mercury in most products in commerce. Currently, NRCM is engaged in a lawsuit in challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to remove power plants from the list of pollution sources requiring strict controls for mercury and other toxic air pollutant emissions.
“NRCM has made it a priority to get toxic chemicals like mercury out of our water, air, wildlife and the food we eat. Due to NRCM’s work today, we hope that future generations of Mainers will not face this toxic threat,” said NRCM’s Prindiville.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that attacks developing brains of young children and babies in the womb, causing significant learning problems. Airborne mercury settles onto the land and water, where it changes chemically and is taken up into the food chain. More than 45 states have issued fish advisories telling women of childbearing age and young children to restrict consumption of fresh water fish due to mercury contamination. One in six women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood that are unsafe for her baby. This means, nationwide, as many as 630,000 infants are exposed each year to mercury levels that put them at risk of serious cognitive and developmental harm.