In the Lab: Tracking Air Pollution in the Pioneer Valley
Mercury in the Pioneer Valley
Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous during fetal development and has been linked to cardiovascular disease in adults. It enters the environment through emission from combustion sources such as coal-fired power plants and is then deposited to the Earth’s surface, where it is incorporated into the food chain and eventually ingested by humans. Although the overall process by which mercury is transported through the atmosphere, soil, and hydrosphere and incorporated into biological tissue is widely accepted, only a relatively few studies have shown direct links between atmospheric deposition and mercury levels in animals. Amherst College is located within 10 km of a coal-burning power plant and known mercury emission source. Together with faculty from the Geology and Biology departments, I participate in a collaborative research initiative to investigate mercury levels at each stage in the environmental dispersion process through analysis of samples collected from various storage pools within the Pioneer Valley.
My research group focuses on the atmospheric dispersion and deposition of mercury from the power plant plume. To understand these processes, we have established an atmospheric monitoring station at the Amherst College Bunker, several kilometers from campus. There, we are measuring the atmospheric total mercury concentration in real time and are collecting weekly samples of wet deposition for total mercury analysis through the national Mercury Deposition Network. We have also conducted extensive simulations of air mass history and plume dispersion to determine the likely sources of mercury pollution at the monitoring site. The results of this work will be combined with data on mercury levels in sediments and biological samples (bird and fish tissue) to map the intensity and geographical range of the power plant mercury signal.