Recent marine studies have shown that a polymer derived from orange peels could potentially “suck up” mercury in the ocean. It’s been labeled as non-toxic and inexpensive, the Holy Grail for cleaning up pollution (and just about for anything else). The mastermind, Justin Chalker from Flinders University, is excited for the applications that the polymer, a chain of molecules, could be used for. So what’s the big deal?
Mercury, is a heavy metal, and while it is harmless in its elemental form it is harmful in liquid as used. Traditionally used in thermometers and home decorations, mercury was seen as the magical liquid metal, under standard conditions. However, industrial dumping in Minamata Bay, Japan, proved that forms of mercury in the environment was far from innocent: the whole town was swept with poisoning as a result of industrial dumping.
Through bacteria and UV rays, elemental mercury (Hg) transforms to methylmercury (CH3HgCl for the science-y people), which is able to accumulate in people. This buildup of mercury affects people in many ways, but most notably in the nervous system and brain. Considered a neurotoxin, mercury hampers people’s movement and causes birth defects, leading the World Health Organization to list it as one of the top ten toxins. Methylmercury’s ability to persist and accumulate in the human body by circumventing the cell’s security guards (glutathione) which usually remove toxins attributes to its potency.
This is why there is so much buzz around Justin Chalker’s new polymer: the product has the potential to remove mercury from the ocean, cleaning up mercury from the waters, the fish we eat, and the human body.
Beyond direct dumping as was the case with Minamata, mercury can get into the ocean by traveling through the air after getting released from burning coal. Burning coal accounts for 50% of the mercury released into the atmosphere, this mercury precipitates out of the atmosphere into the ocean, and wind up in fish. The good news is the US announced new carbon regulations aimed at reducing carbon, especially from coal power plants, and that we’ve got hope in oranges.
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