Heavy Metals Essay

9326 words - 37 pages

Anthropogenic sources of metals can have severe and obvious impacts on the local environment, but signs of environmental change across a larger region and on a broader scale are subtle and difficult to interpret. Connecting dead trees and bare ground to a nearby smelter complex is not hard. But what does it mean when mercury levels are higher in the upper part of ocean and lake sediments. Could it be evidence of an increased circulation of this toxic element, a sign that human activities may be adding to an existing burden of mercury in Arctic animals and the people who eat those animals? With cadmium, what role does natural geology play in relation to anthropogenic inputs in explaining levels in animals that are high enough to raise health concerns? In spite of such uncertainties, one message is clear: these metals matter because they accumulate in the bodies of Arctic animals and hence become available to humans who depend on wildlife for their survival.This chapter discusses the sources of heavy metals in the Arctic environment and describes their levels in air, sediment, water, and biota. Based on current understanding of the behavior of metals in the environment and their toxicology, the chapter attempts to assess the impact of some metals on plants and animals. The focus is both on large-scale contamination and on the severe local ecological effects found near some industrial sites in the Arctic. The potential impacts of metals on human health are covered in the chapter Pollution and Human Health.Heavy metals - an introductionMetals occur naturally in the environment and are present in rocks, soil, plants, and animals. Metals occur in different forms: as ions dissolved in water, as vapors, or as salts or minerals in rock, sand, and soil. They can also be bound in organic or inorganic molecules, or attached to particles in the air. Both natural and anthropogenic processes and sources emit metals into air and water.Plants and animals depend on some metals as micronutrients. However, certain forms of some metals can also be toxic, even in relatively small amounts, and therefore pose a risk to the health of animals and people. While the effects of chronic exposure to trace amounts of some metals is not well understood, a legacy of incidents tells us about the seriousness of high levels of exposure to some metals, especially cadmium and methyl mercury. In the 1950s, chronic cadmium poisoning from rice, coupled with dietary deficiencies, caused an epidemic of kidney damage and a painful skeletal disease among middle-aged women in Japan, the Itai-itai disease. Also in Japan, mercury poisoning from fish in a polluted bay became known as Minimata disease. For mercury, severe effects on wildlife have been well documented. In the 1950s and 1960s, many farmers laced their seeds with methyl mercury to prevent mold growth. The result was extensive bird kills.In the Arctic, sources of heavy metals include weathering of rock. As elsewhere, there is also...

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