Mercury-laden albatross around neck of coal?

by Steve Milloy

What can feathers from eight birds tell us about mercury emissions over the past 140 years?

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 18) reports that a purported increase in methylmercury levels in black-footed albatross feathers over the last 140 years was caused by increasing manmade emissions of mercury.

We are presumably supposed to freak out over this result since it means:

  • Manmade emissions of mercury continue to increase (now primarily from increased Asian fossil fuel use);
  • Bioaccumulation of mercury is increasing; and
  • the black-footed albatross is even more endangered than previously thought.

Let’s start with the black-footed albatross claim — so that mercury doesn’t get mistakenly paired up with a bird like DDT did.

As pointed out in this U.S. Geological Survey report:

The black-footed albatross population [has since] increased from an estimated 18,000 pairs in 1923 to 61,000 pairs in 2005. As with Laysan albatrosses, the increase in the black-footed albatross population over the past 83 years probably is in response to the end of persecution at nesting colonies. Analysis of linear trends in population size showed a positive change from 1923 to 2005, no change from 1957 to 2005, and no change from 1998 to 2005.

Inconveniently for the PNAS study authors, this trend coincides with the rise in mercury emissions. Like the growing polar bear population, that of the black-footed albatross is moving in the wrong direction for anti-fossil fuel worry-worters.

Next, although the researchers emphasize an apparent increase in methylmercury accumulation in the albatross feathers, their data also shows that the accumulation of inorganic mercury decreased in a “strong and significant” manner. Inorganic mercury is what comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes. Methylmercury is what happens when inorganic mercury gets incorporated in the food chain.

Though it’s initially difficult to know what significance, if any, that observation holds, it perhaps can be explained by the creepy similarity between the PNAS study and Michael Mann’s infamous and discredited hockey stick graph.

Mann attempted to reconstruct historical global temperatures going back 1,000 years based on observations from just a few trees. The PNAS study authors attempt to reconstruct global mercury emissions for the period 1860 to 1940 from the feathers of what appears to be eight birds. And as can be seen from their graph (below), the more birds analyzed, the greater the variability in the measurements. So their claimed trends for mercury, if not contrived, are probably not reliable.

The PNAS authors claim that the levels of methylmercury measured in the feathers are on the order of so-called “estimated adverse thresholds.”

Tracking down the studies where these “estimated adverse thresholds” were determined, I found them to be exercises in classic pre-determinism.

Although fecundability is a complex, multifactorial phenomenon, the single-minded researchers simply correlated mercury exposures with observations of adverse reproductive observations and called it a day. Wearing their mercury blinders, the researchers don’t seem to care what else might be the actual cause of any of the observed reproductive shortcomings — and apparently nothing can dissuade them from their maniacal pursuit of mercury.

In one study, researchers found “no overt toxicity or reduction in growth rates” in common loon chicks fed methylmercury in excess of levels found in fish, so they’re moving on to injecting methylmercury directly into loon eggs.

At some point of course, some excessive and unrealistic exposure to methylmercury will cause some sort of reproductive/developmental problem. This will enable the researchers to declare victory and to call for a ban on mercury emissions.

The latter may be tough to justify since Mother Gaia releases just about 70 percent of the mercury emitted.

But although only about 1 percent of global mercury emissions come from U.S. coal fired power plants, you can expect the EPA to nevertheless hang the mercury albatross around their necks.

The PNAS study is obviously an exercise in trying to blame mercury (from fossil fuel combustion) for causing some sort of harm to some sort of living creature. But despite the fact that mercury bioaccumulates to some degree, there is no evidence of harm to anyone or anything from ambient levels of mercury.

Click for the study’s media release.

14 thoughts on “Mercury-laden albatross around neck of coal?”

  1. Mercury removal—and other pollutants— from coal
    was disallowed by EPA; and, continues to oppose its
    use even today.

    Over 30+ years ago The Souther Company, Duke
    Power, ConEd, etc…constructed a pilot plant to
    produce ‘Solvent Refined Coal’ AKA: SRC. When this clear, Karo sryup looking fluid was burned, it released
    only water and CO2. These coal burning utilities
    did this so that their plants would not have to install
    expensive and expensive to operate scrubbers
    and percipatators. Even when scrubbers and
    percipatators are operating properly at a coal
    burning plant, the plant emits about 1000#s of
    Mercury annually PLUS more pollutants than
    an SRC burning plant with no scrubbers and
    percipatators. AND, scrubbers and percipitators
    do malfunction and do need to be serviced—sometimes during peak demands when shutting a
    plant down could shut down the whole grid.

    Outfits like GreenPeace hailed this new technology
    because it was an example of ‘Pollution Source
    Reduction.’ The EPA reaction was: WTF! We told
    you to install scrubbers and percipitators!

    Pleas to Congress got nowhere. Trying to educate
    the public got nowhere. The few times I’ve asked
    EPA bureaucRATS why they oppose this Green
    Approved technology, they answer (1977-2010)
    “We just approved this, Mr. Bryan.” When I check,
    the EPA has spoken a half truth. Yes, SRC is now
    EPA approved; BUT, the coal utilities would still
    have to install scrubbers and percipitators!

    What is a half-truth? “A half truth is a Whole Lie.”
    Olde Jewish saying.

    Clean the environment! Get rid of the EPA!

    Sincerely! Bill Bryan

  2. Well, you did get one thing right: poverty is one of the biggest threats to the environment. To poor people the environment around them is a source of food and fuel and nothing more. It is a resource to exploit. Only when a society is wealthy can it afford to regard the environment as something to preserve.

  3. For what it’s worth, the National Academy of Sciences, in the early part of the 20th century, supported the concept of eugenics, the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race through sterilization and other techniques. As did the American Medical Association. They have always been political.

  4. Correlation coefficients of 0.018 and 0.35, make these data look like something out of a behavioral psychologists study. Physical science correlations should be above 0.8 before you even begin to look for a mechanism.

    Furthermore, what about those rejected “outliers”? Were they rejected for some known defect in the analysis technique or were they rejected merely because they spoiled the desired slope of the regression line? How do the researchers know that they were outliers?

    This is shoddy science at its worst.

  5. If the EPA ever had to base their regulations on good science, 75% of them would be null and void. And that is a conservative estimate from a retired EPAer.

  6. Although in most of my other politics the denizens of this site would qualify me as a leftist commie liberal, and although I do conclude that global warming and mercury (and other) pollution are real threats (hey, I don’t want mercury in my tuna, FFS!), I have not reached this conclusion by ideology, unlike oh so many of my leftist comrades, but by reason and, above all, love and compassion for my fellow humans. Thus, unlike 99.99% of leftist greens, I propose that the best solution to environmental damage AND poverty is a crash effort to build nuclear power, worldwide. In fact, it is crazy not to do so, when the alternatives we face are grim: starvation, global warming, poisoned food, water and air — most likely, all three.

    I’d rather have Fukushima than mercury in my kids’ tuna salad!

  7. Only for the sake of practicality, not to change the subject, but just one time I would love to hear something practical from the scare-mongers like—Tectonic plates are shifting maybe because the Earth is out of balance. (there is a wobble) The theorys could come after establishing something at least rational.
    LED bulbs are getting pretty good now, and emit a comfortable, not a harsh light and the don’t have mercury. Not that I know of anyway.
    Good article Steve

  8. It is an easy calculation to show the mercury emissions from U. S. power plants annually is about equal to the mercury content of ten billion CFLs. CFLs are increasingly being added to American households and probably average 5 or more today. . EPA and other government agencies are encouraging use of CFLs to conserve energy.

    CFL use is mandated by 2013, so the use in households will increase dramaticaly. This is about the same time EPA is going to mandate reductions in mercury emitted by power plants. CFLS pose a far greater threat to houselholds because of intimate use inside homes than mercury emissions from power plants. These strange behaviors of EPA is normal.

    James H. Rust

  9. Thank god they’re capturing all that eeeeeevil killer mercury, putting it into them newfangled light bulbs, and passing a law forcing all of us to install dozens of them into every one of our houses. On the off chance any of your kids gets poisoned, you can tell her she saved some albatross’s life.

  10. Hmm. Could the low levels of mercury increase act as an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal agent much as thimerosal (49.6% ethyl mercury) acts in vaccines? Perhaps the slight increase in the mercury in the bird may have had some beneficial effect?

  11. I think the fact that this study has been released is encouraging. Slowly but surely, the anti-productivity goons are changing their tune, moving away from the attack on CO2.

    But of course, it’s also discouraging, because they can (and do!) continually throw out any number of half-baked assertions that require real (usually volunteer) scientists to discredit. Our only hope is that, with the Internet and talk-back radio, the average person will rebuff the constant scaremongering.

    Of course, that is severely detrimental when there is a true problem. Real scientists and the scientific method are the real losers.

  12. I’m just a dumb old energy auditor, but is it just me or does the solid grey line indicate a decrease in the total amount of mercury? It looks like it goes from 4.62 to 4.59 over the time frame from the table. Particularly from 1940 on.

    I love it when green weanies disprove their own theory.

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