The toxic consequences spewed by coal-fueled power plants.

Photo by mrjoro |

Mercury has served as a useful element for indicating metal intoxication ever since health concerns arose centuries ago when it was used to treat fur pelts.  Our understanding of elemental mercury (Hg) has grown extensively in recent decades, as the amount of mercury cycling in the biosphere has been amplified by four times its natural rate, induced intensely by human activity. 

Immersed in a bath of greenhouse gases, harmful aerosols and other trace metals, Hg is deployed into the atmosphere by incinerators and coal-burning plants at an unceasing rate due to modern manufacturing demands and distribution of power. 

Hg is a potent contaminant since natural atmospheric Hg (when transformed by chemical processes) settles in water and sediments.  At this point it is open to binding with a number of compounds which allow for the large scale distribution of the metal throughout food webs.  This can potentially lead to bioaccumulation (the build-up of Hg in animal tissues).

Research conducted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was published this month.  It reveals substantial amounts of Hg in soil deposits of Indiana’s heavily urbanized core, near which lies a coal-fired power plant.

Much of the Hg released from the power plant source precipitates as a particulate from the atmosphere and collects in waterways near the area from which the emissions occurred.   (A considerable amount of the pollutant is further redistributed globally by high altitude wind currents to the poles of the Earth, major sites of greenhouse gas and atmospheric particulate pollution.)  Inevitably, the concrete setting of major cities expedites the process of Hg reaching water sources which directly impact humans and their food supply.

A notable focus of the study was the importance of all the human health issues and biological ramifications that cascade enormously from burning fossil fuels at a single power plant.  Despite the efficiency of this mode of power generation which many non-environmentalists emphasize in alternative energy debates, they fail to factor in the costly disadvantages that befall the entire living environment around them.

A startling fact emphasizing the importance of transitioning away from pollutant-rich methods of providing energy is further offered by the IUPUI’s results: one in seven fish in Indiana contain Hg levels that would harm a human if consumed. 

Thousands of cities around the world are larger than Indiana and likely have less safety regulations in power plant facilities, labeling freshwater, soil and air contamination by toxic elements as a global crisis.