Total Mercury Released to the Environment by Human Activities

David G. Streets, Hannah M. Horowitz, Daniel J. Jacob, Zifeng Lu, Leonard Levin, Arnout F.H. Ter Schure, Elsie M. Sunderland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We estimate that a cumulative total of 1540 (1060-2800) Gg (gigagrams, 109 grams or thousand tonnes) of mercury (Hg) have been released by human activities up to 2010, 73% of which was released after 1850. Of this liberated Hg, 470 Gg were emitted directly into the atmosphere, and 74% of the air emissions were elemental Hg. Cumulatively, about 1070 Gg were released to land and water bodies. Though annual releases of Hg have been relatively stable since 1880 at 8 ± 2 Gg, except for wartime, the distributions of those releases among source types, world regions, and environmental media have changed dramatically. Production of Hg accounts for 27% of cumulative Hg releases to the environment, followed by silver production (24%) and chemicals manufacturing (12%). North America (30%), Europe (27%), and Asia (16%) have experienced the largest releases. Biogeochemical modeling shows a 3.2-fold increase in the atmospheric burden relative to 1850 and a contemporary atmospheric reservoir of 4.57 Gg, both of which agree well with observational constraints. We find that approximately 40% (390 Gg) of the Hg discarded to land and water must be sequestered at contaminated sites to maintain consistency with recent declines in atmospheric Hg concentrations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5969-5977
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 6 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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