Five hundred years of anthropogenic mercury: Spatial and temporal release profiles

David G. Streets, Hannah M. Horowitz, Zifeng Lu, Leonard Levin, Colin P. Thackray, Elsie M. Sunderland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When released to the biosphere, mercury (Hg) is very mobile and can take millennia to be returned to a secure, long-term repository. Understanding where and when Hg was released as a result of human activities allows better quantification of present-day reemissions and future trajectories of environmental concentrations. In this work, we estimate the time-varying releases of Hg in seven world regions over the 500 year period, 1510-2010. By our estimation, this comprises 95% of all-time anthropogenic releases. Globally, 1.47 Tg of Hg were released in this period, 23% directly to the atmosphere and 77% to land and water bodies. Cumulative releases have been largest in Europe (427 Gg) and North America (413 Gg). In some world regions (Africa/Middle East and Oceania), almost all (>99%) of the Hg is relatively recent (emitted since 1850), whereas in South America it is mostly of older vintage (63% emitted before 1850). Asia was the greatest-emitting region in 2010, while releases in Europe and North America have declined since the 1970s, as recognition of the risks posed by Hg have led to its phase-out in commercial usage. The continued use of Hg in artisanal and small-scale gold mining means that the Africa/Middle East region is now a major contributor. We estimate that 72% of cumulative Hg emissions to air has been in the form of elemental mercury (Hg0), which has a long lifetime in the atmosphere and can therefore be transported long distances. Our results show that 83% of the total Hg has been released to local water bodies, onto land, or quickly deposited from the air in divalent (HgII) form. Regionally, this value ranges from 77% in Africa/Middle East and Oceania to 89% in South America. Results from global biogeochemical modeling indicate improved agreement of the refined emission estimates in this study with archival records of Hg accumulation in estuarine and deep ocean sediment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number084004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jul 22 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • global budget
  • historical releases
  • mercury
  • regional pollution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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