Mercury research helps identify link between environment and food

By Peter Kent

mercury bio accumulation and toxicity, illustration by Walker MasseyThe mercury content in fish can cause neurological damage in humans. It accumulates in the food chain so that the concentration in predatory fish, such as bass, can be a million times higher than in the water. When humans eat these fish, we consume all the accumulated mercury. 

Research by a Clemson scientist has provided a key insight into how mercury moves from the environment to the food chain. Yuji Arai, a molecular environmental toxicologist, collaborated with researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Saskatchewan to study bass species in two California and Nevada reservoirs.

They identified a compound – formed by methyl mercury and an amino acid called cysteine – in fish from both reservoirs. The discovery is important for environmental policymakers who regulate commercial fishing and food safety guidelines.

Mercury in the reservoirs was the result of gold and silver mining in the 1800s. Today it enters our water supply as ash from burning coal or other fossil fuels, as well as from volcanoes and forest fires.

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For information: Yuji Arai, 864-656-2607, yarai@clemson.edu