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Step 1 in curbing mercury emissions: Find their source.

Unique ‘fingerprints’ of coal beds will help scientists track airborne toxin – and agree on controls.

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With China reportedly bringing two new coal-fired power plants on line every week and energy use growing elsewhere, knowing the source of mercury pollution with precision will be increasingly important, say experts. Between 1990 and 2002, mercury from human sources increased by 15 percent, much of it from the developing world. Some 2,000 tons are now released yearly worldwide. Half the mercury falling in rain in California comes from Asia, according to studies by Professor Flegal and others. Perhaps one-third of all mercury in the US comes from elsewhere – just as US mercury emissions go elsewhere.

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Now “everybody wants to point the finger at the other guy,” says Charles Driscoll, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University in New York. Fingerprinting will provide “the framework where you can really think about managing this.”

With certainty about sources, treaties to control emissions could be hammered out among nations, says Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. It may also change how, or if, people sue polluters for damages in court.

In the 19th century, people sued copper smelters that had devastated the surrounding landscape, he says. But as industrialization spread, pinpointing who was spewing what became nearly impossible, so this kind of lawsuit became less common. Mercury fingerprinting could reverse that trend, and more cases could strengthen the incentive not to pollute, says Percival.
When airborne mercury precipitates out of the atmosphere into waterways, it becomes methylated, and more easily absorbed by living organisms. From there, it moves up the food chain, where it concentrates as it moves higher.

The larger and longer-lived the animal – tuna, for example – the greater the potential concentration of mercury and the greater the risk to predators.

Scientists have long known that mercury “bio-accumulates” quickly in aquatic food webs. But they’re finding concentrations in terrestrial wildlife, like spiders, songbirds, and bats as well.

“We understand the need to reduce emissions,” says Dan Riedinger, speaking for Edison Electrical Institute in Wash­ington, an association of electric companies. “It’s just a question of how it’s going to be done.” His industry wants a cap-and-trade approach to mercury, but expects the next administration to institute controls based on best-available technology.

Sound and Algae extract mercury

Cleaning up waterways contaminated with mercury is tricky. Dredging sediment and dumping it at toxic-waste sites is the typical remedy. But when sediments are disturbed, they tend to release whatever mercury they contain into the water. Some argue that it’s best simply to leave mercury-laden sediments alone.

Now, an team of scientists has developed a way to remove mercury much more efficiently. It employs a combination of sound waves and genetically engineered algae. Sonic waves aimed at the sediments create microscopic bubbles in the water. They burst with such force that they shake loose the mercury. Algae kept behind a membrane porous enough to let mercury in but not porous enough to let algae out, suck up the mercury. The algae are genetically modified to enhance an already natural capacity to uptake the heavy metal – which is how mercury usually enters the aquatic food web.

From there, it's just a matter of changing the water chemistry to leach out the mercury, says Linda Weavers, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Ohio State University, Columbus. That's easily done. The only real obstacle to making the technique commercially viable, she says, is lack of interest. Most funding now flows to global-warming research.