Mercury as a global pollutant: Sources, pathways, and effects

Charles T. Driscoll, Robert P. Mason, Hing Man Chan, Daniel J. Jacob, Nicola Pirrone

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1731 Scopus citations


Mercury (Hg) is a global pollutant that affects human and ecosystem health. We synthesize understanding of sources, atmosphere-land-ocean Hg dynamics and health effects, and consider the implications of Hg-control policies. Primary anthropogenic Hg emissions greatly exceed natural geogenic sources, resulting in increases in Hg reservoirs and subsequent secondary Hg emissions that facilitate its global distribution. The ultimate fate of emitted Hg is primarily recalcitrant soil pools and deep ocean waters and sediments. Transfers of Hg emissions to largely unavailable reservoirs occur over the time scale of centuries, and are primarily mediated through atmospheric exchanges of wet/dry deposition and evasion from vegetation, soil organic matter and ocean surfaces. A key link between inorganic Hg inputs and exposure of humans and wildlife is the net production of methylmercury, which occurs mainly in reducing zones in freshwater, terrestrial, and coastal environments, and the subsurface ocean. Elevated human exposure to methylmercury primarily results from consumption of estuarine and marine fish. Developing fetuses are most at risk from this neurotoxin but health effects of highly exposed populations and wildlife are also a concern. Integration of Hg science with national and international policy efforts is needed to target efforts and evaluate efficacy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4967-4983
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 21 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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