Scientists develop efficient solution to monitor airborne mercury

Mercury enters the atmosphere from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, among other sources. (Reference image by Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons.)

New research conducted at the University of Nevada, Reno, verified that new technologies measure airborne mercury pollution far more accurately than the older systems that have been in widespread use for decades.

In a paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the scientists explain that older technology under-measures mercury concentrations by as much as 80%.

Mercury enters the atmosphere from small-scale gold mining, coal-burning power plants, cement manufacturers and other industrial operations. It is carried worldwide.

As mercury is spread through the air, it is deposited into soil and water, where it enters the food chain. Mercury-contaminated fish pose a health risk to humans. So does mercury-contaminated rice. High levels of mercury concentration affect the reproduction of birds and other wildlife and take a silent death toll.

Despite well-documented knowledge of the environmental risks, the lack of accurate technology to measure airborne mercury pollution has hampered efforts to set global standards to reduce the threat.

Given this state of affairs and the fact that they have been conducting research on this topic since 2013, scientists Mae Gustin and Jiaoyan Huang started doing experiments and tested four air-sampling systems that used newer measurement technology, along with one of the older devices.

In their recent paper, they report that the newer systems, which rely on nylon or polyethersulfone membranes to capture airborne mercury, are much more accurate than older systems. One version of the technology used in two of the new systems that were tested was developed by the team led by Gustin at the University of Nevada, Reno; the technology used in the two other new systems was developed at Utah State University.

Gustin noted that researchers are now fine-tuning the materials used to create the membranes employed in the new measurement systems.

“Membranes are easy to collect and analyze and are easily deployed,” she said. “This would be a viable method for many researchers. The new membrane samplers have been deployed for testing at more than a dozen locations across the world—from Peavine Peak outside Reno to Svalbard in far-northern Norway, and from Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean to the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah—to gather further information in collaboration with international scientists. This is how science evolves.”