Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are conducting research on how mercury moves through the environment and what can be done about it.

During the 1950s and 1960s, large amounts of mercury were released from the Y-12 National Security Complex. It seeped into soils and leaked into local waterways.

Researchers are concerned about the most toxic form of the metal, methylmercury.

They are testing and collecting samples of the water at East Fork Poplar Creek in Oak Ridge.

“We’re trying to understand how mercury moves through the creek,” said Scott Brooks, a research scientist at ORNL. “Understanding how mercury gets turned into methylmercury is really important for us locally, as well as a global impact in terms of understanding mercury cycling and how it impacts mercury levels in fish.”

Methylmercury forms in nature when mercury interacts with certain microbes living in soil and waterways. According to scientists, it can be harmful to not just fish, but humans as well. 

“The primary risk to humans is consuming fish that have high levels of methylmercury in it. And that risk is greatest for pregnant women and young children because it affects the development and function of your nervous system,” said Brooks. 

Focusing on mercury and its transformation, researchers want to develop new technologies that can break it down into its less toxic element. 

After processing samples out in the field, they’re then sent to the lab for further testing. 

“We can manipulate different things, different concentrates of mercury or concentrations of organic matter and then examine how the mercury is behaving and how it’s transferring up the food chain or whether it’s getting methylated,” said Teresa Mathews, a Research Scientist at ORNL. 

Scientists have had major advancements in their research, but they continue to find new ways to make the water safe. 

Eric Pierce with Oak Ridge National Laboratory adds, “That ranges from designing new materials, absorbent materials that have the ability to sequester mercury from water. Looking at different ways to manipulate the food chain.”

Officials at ORNL say there are roughly 9,000 sites across the country that have been impacted by mercury. Scientists plan on spending the next nine years to come up solutions and ideas for mercury in the water.