Mercury, food webs, and marine mammals: Implications of diet and climate change for human health

Shawn Booth, Dirk Zeller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

136 Citations (Scopus)


We modeled the flow of methyl mercury, a toxic global pollutant, in the Faroe Islands marine ecosystem and compared average human methyl mercury exposure from consumption of pilot whale meat and fish (cod, Gadus morhua) with current tolerable weekly intake (TWI) levels. Under present conditions and climate change scenarios, methyl mercury increased in the ecosystem, translating into increased human exposure over time. However, we saw greater changes as a result of changing fishing mortalities. A large portion of the general human population exceed the TWI levels set by the World Health Organization [WHO; 1.6 μg/kg body weight (bw)], and they all exceed the reference dose (RfD) of 0.1 μg/kg bw/day set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; equivalent to a TWI of 0.7 μg/kg bw). As a result of an independent study documenting that Faroese children exposed prenatally to methyl mercury had reduced cognitive abilities, pregnant women have decreased their intake of whale meat and were below the TWI levels set by the WHO and the U.S. EPA. Cod had approximately 95% lower methyl mercury concentrations than did pilot whale. Thus, the high and harmful levels of methyl mercury in the diet of Faroe Islanders are driven by whale meat consumption, and the increasing impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation. Significantly, base inflow rates of mercury into the environment would need to be reduced by approximately 50% to ensure levels of intake below the WHO TWI levels, given current levels of whale consumption.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)521-526
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Health Perspectives
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2005
Externally publishedYes

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