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The Impact of Mercury in the Arctic

As a child, Amina Schartup didn’t think twice about swimming in what she describes as the polluted waters of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I did not think there was anything else,” Schartup says, recalling that she could smell oil and see oil in the water. “That’s what everybody did.”

Amina Schartup smiles in the lab.
Amina Schartup. Credit: Kathleen Gosnell.

And when she was 10, she moved to Bamako, Mali, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, where in her new neighborhood there was no running water, electricity or a sewage system. It left a lasting impression.

“It’s just really difficult to walk out of your house, step into an open sewer by accident and just not think about, ‘OK, this is not sustainable in the long run,’” she says.

Taken together, these crucial water-related environmental issues Schartup encountered early on prompted her to pursue a career studying water.

Schartup just accepted a marine chemist assistant professorship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego after spending four years working as a research associate at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

At Scripps, she’ll teach and continue researching chemical and biological processes that regulate the fate of contaminants that human activity releases into the environment. Schartup is particularly interested in mercury, because it’s one of the rare elements that allows her to work at the intersection of so many topics.

Using artisanal gold mining as an example, Schartup says there are frequent articles covering its use of mercury and impact on human health. Gold mining is also linked to economics and climate change, especially in developing countries where people start digging for gold because it’s not raining where they are as much anymore, taking agriculture off the table as a career pursuit, she says.

“If you’re interested in those intersections of politics, economics and environment issues, then mercury can help you at least be involved in that space,” Schartup says.

Human activity like waste incineration, artisanal gold mining and coal burning, converts inorganic mercury that’s typically non-toxic into an organic form converted in the environment, mostly by microbes, to an organic form, she says. And once it deposits into bodies of water like oceans from air particles, it affects fish, which people in turn eat. Eating these fish can cause brain damage in developing fetuses.

“That’s why [doctors] tell, for example, pregnant women to limit their consumption of large predatory fish such as swordfish or tuna,” Schartup says. “Our best action is to reduce how much inorganic mercury we emit into the environment.”

According to Schartup, this issue is of particular concern for the Arctic indigenous community who tend to rely on higher quantities of fish as a main source of protein for cultural and accessibility reasons.

Amina Schartup SCUBA diving.
Amina Schartup scuba diving.
Credit: Steven Schartup.

The frustrating part for scientists, indigenous communities and other residents living up there is they’re affected by the mercury that mostly comes from human activity south of the Arctic, Schartup says.

She’s spent nearly two years learning about impacted populations, thanks to a policy fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and as a Technology Fellow for the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Sciences Section — she remains affiliated with Harvard while she’s completing the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship in Alexandria, Virginia.

As part of the fellowship, which ends in August, Schartup has spent most of her time co-authoring the update to the 29-year-old Principles for Conducting Research in the Arctic, to ensure the document matches up with U.S. Arctic policy, and covers research across all disciplines.

The Principles for Conducting Research in the Arctic document was created to offer guidance for researchers involved in the humanities, as well as the physical, biological, health, behavioral, economic, political and social sciences. It outlines principles those groups should observe when they’re conducting, sponsoring or applying results from research in the Arctic and northern regions.

“It was revolutionary in its own way, but the way it was written did not really rely on feedback in the community and engage them in the process,” Schartup says.

Written to promote better communication between scientists and the residents in Alaska — particularly those from indigenous, Arctic communities — the updated document took the better part of the year to complete, Schartup says.

The process, which proved challenging, included meeting with indigenous communities, getting and recording their feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about the principles, hearing from the research community on what they thought the principles should include, how best to approach people when you have a project, and distilling all of that into a short document for participating U.S. agencies to agree upon.

For Schartup, one of the hardest parts of the process was distilling all of the information into a short document. She was part of the five-person writing subgroup and responsible for consolidating information into a short, punchy document. As the team starts publicizing the document at conferences and the like, Schartup hopes her team’s work lays the groundwork to help researchers build their projects on local knowledge.

“In a way, the principles are the embodiment of what we want people to do when they put a document together because it talks about engagement and bringing in options and consensus and also giving each other time to come up with something that everybody can agree on,” Schartup says, adding that she hopes the team updates the document every five years. “We are hoping that...we will do a good job at promoting it and making sure that everybody picks up on the document — that’s why we’re doing our best to spread the word and tell communities that this document exists.”

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