The 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Edinburgh

Adiari I. Vázquez-Rodríguez graduated from Harvard University with a B.S. in Engineering Sciences in 2005. After practicing Environmental Engineering and becoming a licensed Professional Engineer in 2008, she returned to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where she is currently completing her doctoral degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Her doctoral research focuses on the environmental transport and reactivity of mercury in the environment. Thanks to a travel grant from the Simon Wolff Charitable Foundation, she was able to present her research at the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant.

Mercury is a highly toxic metal known to be a potent neurotoxin. Approximately one third of children in the European Union are born with levels of mercury in their bodies that can interfere with their neurological development. In adults, mercury has also been linked to cardiovascular disease.

A large fraction of mercury released into the atmosphere comes from anthropogenic sources such as coal combustion and gold mining. Once mercury is deposited in the ocean, it can bioaccumulate in fish, and as larger fish eat smaller fish, mercury concentrations are magnified in organisms higher in the food chain. For this reason the consumption of large marine predator fish such as shark, swordfish, and tuna is an important source of mercury to humans. In an increasingly globalized world where the food we consume comes from around the globe, we have an enhanced interest in limiting mercury emissions at an international level. More importantly, due to mercury’s ability to be transported globally over long distances, emissions from one country can adversely impact the population and environment in another. This points to the importance of creating a global treaty to limit mercury released into the environment.

Thanks in part to a generous travel grant from the Simon Wolff Charitable Foundation, I was able to further explore the topic of mercury pollution as a global issue by participating in the 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Edinburgh, Scotland. The meeting, which took place in July 2013, brought together toxicologists, scientists, economists, engineers, and regulators to discuss mercury pollution.The conference’s theme, "Science informing global policy" was timed to coincide with this year’s launch of the United Nations Global Legally Binding Treaty for the control of mercury releases. By adopting this treaty, signed by about 140 nations in October 2013, governments took a major step towards limiting mercury use and emissions and thereby ameliorating the health and environmental impacts of mercury.

The conference was highly productive: I was able to present my research on mercury releases to the atmosphere from mercury-containing soils and sediments, and was able to exchange ideas with leading experts in the field. The conference, as an ideal setting for transforming scientific ideas into global policy, illustrated the direct impact that scientific research can have on improving global human and environmental health.

I would like to thank the Simon Wolff Charitable Foundation for the award of a travel grant to attend this conference, and for their on-going commitment to aiding young scientists fund conference travel. Attending this conference has been an invaluable experience. Moreover, the adoption of the United Nations treaty for controlling mercury releases this year is a meaningful reminder of Dr. Wolff’s legacy: basic scientific knowledge can be used to positively impact communities and their health.

Adiari I. Vázquez-Rodríguez
PhD Candidate
Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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