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Biomonitoring selenium, mercury, and selenium:mercury molar ratios in selected species in Northeastern US estuaries: risk to biota and humans

  • Impacts in Environmental Trends, Health and Well Being: A Global pollution Problem
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Abstract

The mutual mitigation of selenium and mercury toxicity is particularly interesting, especially for humans. Mercury is widely recognized as a pantoxic element; all forms are toxic to all organisms. Less well known is that selenium in excess is toxic as well. The high affinity between these elements influences their bioavailability and toxicity. In this paper, we use selected species from Barnegat and Delaware Bays in New Jersey to examine variations in levels of selenium and mercury, and selenium:mercury molar ratios between and within species. We report on species ranging from horseshoe crab eggs (Limulus polyphemus), a keystone species of the food chain, to several fish species, to fish-eating birds. Sampling began in the 1970s for some species and in the 1990s for others. We found no clear time trends in mercury levels in horseshoe crab eggs, but selenium levels declined at first, then remained steady after the mid1990s. Concentrations of mercury and selenium in blood of migrant shorebirds directly reflected levels in horseshoe crab eggs (their food at stopover). Levels of mercury in eggs of common terns (Sterna hirundo) varied over time, and may have declined slightly since the mid2000s; selenium levels also varied temporally, and declined somewhat. There were variations in mercury and selenium levels in commercial, recreational, and subsistence fish as a function of species, season, and size (a surrogate for age). Selenium:mercury molar ratios also varied as a function of species, year, season, and size in fish. While mercury levels increased with size within individual fish species, selenium levels remained the same or declined. Thus selenium:mercury molar ratios declined with size in fish, reducing the potential of selenium to ameliorate mercury toxicity in consumers. Mercury levels in fish examined were higher in early summer and late fall, and lower in the summer, while selenium stayed relatively similar; thus selenium:mercury molar ratios were lower in early summer and late fall than in midsummer. We discuss the importance of temporal trends in biomonitoring projects, variations in levels of mercury, selenium, and the molar ratios as a function of several variables, and the influence of these on risks to predators and humans eating the fish, and the eggs of gulls, terns. Our data suggests that variability limits the utility of the selenium:mercury molar ratio for fish consumption advisories and for risk management.

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Data availability

The datasets used and analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgments

We particularly thank F. Lesser for his help in Barnegat Bay for 40+ years. We also thank Mandy Dey, Larry Niles, Nellie Tsipoura, Mark Peck, and Stephanie Feigin. The Endangered and Nongame Species Program of NJ Department of Environmental Protection, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service provided permits, and the Rutgers University IUCAC for protocol approval (E97-017, 3-year renewals). We thank Carlos Lodeiro, José Luis Capelo, and the 3rd PTIM Conference for inviting us and supporting our travel.

Funding

This research was funded by the USDA (Hatch Multistate Project 1008906, through the New Jersey Agriculture and Extension Service, Hatch NJ12233 and W3045, W4045), NIEHS Center of Excellence (NIH-NIEHS P30ES005022), NFWF, CWFNJ, Rutgers University, and Tiko Fund. We thank Carlos Lodeiro, José Luis Capelo, and the 3rd PTIM Conference for inviting us and supporting our travel.

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Burger and Gochfeld both contributed to the conceptualization of the project, collection of samples, analysis, and writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Joanna Burger.

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All samples and data collected in this paper were gathered by the authors under the appropriate ethical standards of the University and under appropriate Institutional Review Board protocols (92-036, 97-017).

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No consent to participate is required because no human participants were involved.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Highlights

1. Mercury, selenium, and selenium:mercury ratios were examined in crab eggs, fish, and birds from New Jersey (USA).

2. There were no clear yearly patterns in mercury or selenium levels in crab (1993–2019) or tern eggs (1971–2019).

3. Selenium and mercury varied by species in small prey fish and commercial/recreational fish, leading to differences in selenium:mercury molar ratios.

4. Mercury levels increased with fish size and season, while selenium did not.

5. Risk from consumption of crab and tern eggs, and fish varied for predators and people, limiting the utility of the ratio in risk communication and risk management.

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Burger, J., Gochfeld, M. Biomonitoring selenium, mercury, and selenium:mercury molar ratios in selected species in Northeastern US estuaries: risk to biota and humans. Environ Sci Pollut Res 28, 18392–18406 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-12175-z

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-12175-z

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