Lake Erie water snake recovery. Harmful algal bloom forecasts and monitoring. A water quality lab ready to open this spring. Ohio Sea Grant’s Stone Laboratory plays a role in many high-profile environmental protection efforts along Lake Erie’s western basin, but one of its smaller projects hasn’t gotten much attention yet.
Stone Lab Manager Matt Thomas and Assistant Manager Kevin Hart are maintaining a longterm data collection and monitoring station measuring atmospheric mercury. This program is funded by the Ohio EPA, who will use the data. The analyzer unit was installed at Stone Lab’s Research Building on South Bass Island in November 2011.
“The analyzer unit, made by Tekran Instrument Corporation, is one of only 22 active units of its kind in North America,” explains Hart. “Two are located in Ohio, one here at Stone Laboratory and the other at Ohio University in Athens.”
According to the EPA, mercury is naturally found in certain rocks, including coal. Coalburning power plants account for about 50 percent of human-caused mercury emissions in the United States. Burning hazardous waste, spilled mercury, and the improper disposal of products that contain mercury—such as compact fluorescent “energy saver” light bulbs—can also release mercury into the environment.
Long term exposure to mercury can affect the nervous system, brain, heart, kidney, and lungs. While airborne mercury concentrations are usually too small to have direct health impacts, mercury eventually settles out of the air and into water, either directly or as runoff from surrounding land. There it accumulates in food fish and other aquatic organisms and can eventually become a health risk. Ultimately, monitoring efforts like the station at Stone Lab are an important first step in limiting mercury emissions before the toxin can become part of the food chain.
The analyzer collects data on three forms of mercury: pure, oxidized, and bound to other particles in the air, Hart says. Data from the unit is sent to Ohio EPA daily via cellular link. This monitoring effort runs continuously year-round.
Great Lakes states and the northeastern US have been especially concerned about mercury pollution, and continue to lead efforts to identify and pursue ways to reduce and prevent mercury emissions. Throughout the US, the Clean Air Act governs emissions limits, but states have the option to adopt more stringent regulations, either individually or in collaboration with neighboring states.