Written by Caleb Barsch, ESLLC 0216-2017
Mercury is one of nature’s greatest contradictions. It is a metal that is liquid at room temperature. Humans have found it useful to measure temperature, mine gold, and make hats. However, this unusual element has come back to bite humans through a litany of health problems. Mercury is rare for environmental hazards, because it hurts the rich just as much as it hurts the poor. Wealthy people, with their governments concerned about air and water quality, political power to stop environmental degradation in their neighborhoods, and insulated professions that do not require working with harmful chemicals in mines or factories, typically do not have to deal as much with the direct effects of environmental degradation. Mercury, however, hits hard.
The rich come into contact with mercury through its prevalence in many expensive kinds of fish. Fish like swordfish, marlin, shark, king mackerel, and bigeye tuna are very high in mercury and are on the menu at most upscale fish restaurants. Add to this the fact that many rich people live on the coasts and prefer fine seafood, and problem begins to show itself. These fish contain the most mercury because they are at the top of their respective food chains (besides humans). Plankton take up mercury from the ocean, then progressively larger fish eat those plankton and each other, collecting all the mercury that was in the previous link of the food chain. By the time the food chain reaches the apex predator, there are not many apex predators to take in all the mercury that the plankton originally possessed, which results in just a few fish taking in the same amount of mercury that millions of plankton took in originally.
Ultimately, mercury harms everyone through artisanal gold mining and the burning of coal as well as fish consumption. Keeping with its inherently contradictory nature, however, is the fact that this unusual element hits a group of people who are normally insulated from destruction of the environment the hardest.