Plants lessen global mercury levels through absorption; Study

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in the US, has unveiled that apart from absorbing carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, plants perform a significant role in reducing the amount of toxic mercury gas levels as well. 

The team at the University of Massachusetts Lowell stated that plants, just like carbon dioxide, absorb a vast amount of poisonous mercury gas from the atmosphere and deposit the element into the soil.

Toxic Waste

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mercury, which is considered to be unhealthy due to the neurological and physiological impact it causes on the human body. If exposed, mercury can have harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys. The inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested.

There is no safe level of mercury for humans. Contact with the hazardous element can also lead to irritability, speech and visual impairment, hypospermia, kidney failure and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.

Enormous quantities of mercury are released into the atmosphere as a gas through burning coal, mining and other industrial and natural processes.

Impact of Plants

Mercury absorbed by the plants is transferred to the soil when they shed leaves or die. The study which was published in the journal Nature Reviews – Earth & Environment, reveals that the mercury transferred to the soil is circulated back to water bodies, threatening wildlife and people who eat contaminated fish.

The Study

Researchers collected 200 published studies with data on mercury levels in vegetation from more than 400 locations around the world as part of the study.

The team found that about 88 percent of the mercury found in plants originates from plants’ leaves absorbing gaseous mercury from the atmosphere.

Dr. Jun Zhou, Research Associate at UMass Lowell revealed that vegetation across the globe can take up more than 1,300 tonnes of mercury each year, accounting for 60 to 90 percent of it being deposited over land.

Dr. Zhou remarked that the latest study is the largest comprehensive review of the uptake of mercury in vegetation and its impact on mercury cycling around the world and moves the scientific community towards a greater understanding of how mercury cycling works.

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