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Mercury levels rising in expanse around Alberta oilsands
Mercury wafting out of oilsands operations is impacting an area – or “bull’s-eye” — that extends for about 19,000 square kilometres in northeast Alberta, according to federal scientists.
Levels of the potent neurotoxin found near the massive industrial operation have been found to be up to 16 times higher than “background” levels for the region, says Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk, who recently reported the findings at an international toxicology conference.
The federal scientists stress the mercury loadings around the oilsands are low compared to the contamination seen in many parts of North America including southern Ontario and southern Quebec.
The highest loadings of mercury were 1,000 nanograms per square metre, much higher than the background level for the region. But she says the “pulse” of mercury in meltwater entering the ecosystem in the spring is below the limits in water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life established by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.
The scientists also found up to 19 nanograms of methyl mercury per square metre near the oilsands, 16 times the region’s background level. It is the first report of this more “toxic” form of mercury in snow. Microbes typically convert mercury into methyl mercury when the metal enters aquatic ecosystems and begins to work its way up through the food web.