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Hidden Risk: Mercury Pollution's Costs to Wildlife and People

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Mercury pollution - nothing to worry about if I don't live in the rural Northeast and don't eat tons of fish, right?

Guess again, says a new report done by the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy. The report, "Hidden Risk," details the widespread and deep impacts of mercury pollution in terrestrial nature - particularly on animals such as songbirds and bats. Researchers are discovering how mercury is causing big declines in reproductive success among these species, as well as physiological oddities - like developmental asymmetries and an inability of some birds to hit high notes.

And the same rain that brings mercury pollution down from the sky falls on us, too. So are these species a kind of canary in the coal mine for mercury's effects on other vertebrates, including people? And will strict new federal standards limiting U.S. power plant pollution be enough in a world where mercury pollution is on the rise from China and other nations? I talked with two co-authors of "Hidden Risk" - BRI's executive director, Dave Evers, and Tim Tear, the Conservancy's director of science for New York - to find out more. (Download the report here.)

Q. Some are going to be surprised that mercury pollution is still a problem - didn't various agencies and industries take steps to reduce mercury emissions over the last decade in the United States? So why are high levels of mercury still a problem in many wildlife species?

Dave Evers: Yes, a lot of mercury has been taken out of air pollution over the past few decades - but our understanding is growing of how just a little mercury can adversely affect wildlife, and how many species have been affected. More species are being impacted than we had thought, and the toxicity of methylmercury to those species is at lower threshold levels than we ever realized.

Tim Tear: Many of these species and many of the places affected are in people's backyards. People used to think that mercury pollution was a problem isolated to remote areas of the Northeast. No more.
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