There’s a real equator?the invisible line that divides the earth’s North from its South?but there’s also a “chemical equator” that divides the polluted air of the North from the relatively clear air of the South. But as the South becomes more industrialized, that pollution may creep south. It can also be blown by the wind, making it even harder to figure out where the pollution originates. But scientists have found a way to IDENTIFY the pollutors! They’ve also learned how to suck pollution out of old chemical landfills by planting trees.

Researchers have developed a new tool that uses natural “fingerprints” in coal to track down sources of mercury polluting the environment. Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but some 2000 tons of it enter the environment each year from human-generated sources such as incinerators, chlorine-producing plants and coal-burning power plants. Mercury is deposited onto land or into water, where microorganisms convert some of it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish and the animals that eat them?including us! Effects on humans include damage to the central nervous system, heart and immune system. The developing brains of young and unborn children are especially vulnerable.

Researcher Joel Blum says, “There has been a lot of controversy about how much mercury is coming from different types of industrial activities, compared to natural sources, but it has been difficult to figure out the relative contributions. And even if you can determine how much of it is coming from natural versus human sources, there’s still the question of how much is from global sources, such as coal-fired power plants overseas, and how much is being produced and deposited locally.”

For the past eight years, Blum and co-workers have been trying to develop a way of reading mercury fingerprints in coal and other sources of mercury. The hope was that they could then find those same fingerprints in soil and water bodies, much as a detective matches a suspect’s fingerprints to those found at a crime scene, and use them to figure out exactly what the sources of mercury pollution are in certain areas.

Blum says, “For some time, we weren’t sure that it was going to be technically possible, but now we’ve cracked that nut and have shown significant differences not only between mercury from coal and, say, metallic forms of mercury that are used in industry, but also between different coal deposits.

“Coal-burning plants are being built in China at an alarming rate?something like two per week?and the amount of mercury emitted to the atmosphere is increasing dramatically. We think we may be able to detect mercury coming from specific regions in China and watch it as it’s transported and re-deposited around the globe.”

Closer to home, a number of coal-burning power plants have been proposed for construction in Michigan, and one question that arises during the permitting process is how much mercury may end up in nearby lakes and wetlands.

According to Blum, “Scientists have models and other ways of estimating how much mercury will be deposited locally, but we may, for the first time, be able to directly differentiate between mercury coming from local plants and mercury that has been transported longer distances.”

In the Northeastern corner of the United States, at the sprawling Fort Drum military installation in New York, 23,000 willow plants are cleaning up the site of a 164,000-gallon plume of fuel that has been spreading underground for more than 50 years. No one knows exactly when the leaks began?perhaps as early as World War II?but they were discovered in 1988, when the petroleum, which had been spreading underground for many years, began to foul small creeks on the base.

Researcher Christopher Nowak says, “This is just one military base of many, and it was clear that what we are doing here could be applied elsewhere.” Many now defunct military bases left behind huge areas of contamination, due to the weapons that were used there. Nowak says, “It’s the cost of doing business for the Army.”

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