Mercury in Nordic ecosystems

This report provides a first comprehensive compilation and assessment of available data on mercury in air, precipitation, sediments and fish in the Nordic countries. The main conclusion is that mercury levels in Nordic ecosystems continue to be affected by long-range atmospheric transport. The geographical patterns of mercury concentrations in both sediments and fish are also strongly affected by ecosystem characteristics and in some regions possibly by historical pollution. An evaluation of geographical variations in mercury concentrations in precipitation indicates that the influence from anthropogenic sources from Central European areas is still significant. The annual variability of deposition is large and dependant of precipitation amounts. An evaluation of data from stations around the North Sea has indicated a significant decrease in mercury concentrations in precipitation indicating a continuous decrease of emissions in Europe (Wängberg et al., 2007). For mercury in air (TGM), the geographical pattern is less pronounced indicating the influence of mercury emissions and distribution over a larger geographical area (i.e. hemispherical transport). Comparison of recent (surficial) and historical lake sediments show significantly elevated concentrations of mercury most likely caused by anthropogenic atmospheric deposition over the past century. The highest pollution impact was observed in the coastal areas of southern Norway, in south western Finland and in Sweden from the coastal areas in the southwest across the central parts to the north-east. The general increase in recent versus old sediments was 2-5 fold. Data on mercury in Nordic freshwater fish was assembled and evaluated with respect to geographical variations. The fish data were further compared with temporal and spatial trends in mercury deposition and mercury contamination of lake sediments in order to investigate the coupling between atmospheric transport and deposition of mercury and local mercury pollution effects (i.e. methylmercury in fish). The general pattern of fish contamination follows to some extent a pattern similar to that of current and previous atmospheric pollution. Large areas have fish with mercury concentrations exceeding the health advisory guideline of 0.5 mg/kg or 1.0 mg/kg (for northern pike) in the EU and of around 0.3 mg kg-1 in the USA, thus restricting their use for human consumption. A more comprehensive assessment of factors influencing levels of methylmercury in fish has to include a number of other parameters such as catchment characteristics (e.g. relative size, presence of wetlands), contents and fluxes of DOC in soil run-off and surface waters as well as methylation potential within ecosystems.

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Last updated: 2021-05-05

IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute

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