Last month I had the opportunity to participate in the 12th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant on Jeju Island in South Korea. The biennial conference brings together scientists, medical professionals, industry leaders, and policy makers who share a common intent of protecting human health and the environment from mercury pollution. I spent one week discussing data with other oceanographers from Europe and the United States, learning about the human health impacts of mercury from fish consumption and mining activities, and branching out into new territory to prepare for my work this summer in the Arctic Ocean. I presented data from the 2013 GEOTRACES Pacific cruise described in this blog, and from a collaborative project that measured fluxes of mercury from rivers and estuaries flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
This year was the first mercury conference since the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) established the Minamata Convention in 2013. The convention is a global treaty signed by 128 countries (including the United States) to reduce the production, use, and emissions of mercury. Members from the UNEP were present to discuss their goals and current challenges. Mercury pollution can traverse the world through riverine discharge, ocean currents, and global air circulation – one nation’s effort to reduce emissions can easily be negated by increased emissions from another country. This type of global effort is necessary to make real progress in reducing the amount of anthropogenic mercury in the environment. The backbone of this convention is decades of scientific research and its successful implementation is a great example of what can happen when science and policy work together.
And then there was MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome)…an outbreak that has been spreading through South Korea. The illness has claimed 27 lives in the past month inducing some panic in regards to traveling through the country. On the fourth day of the conference the Korean government released a statement explaining that a MERS patient had recently visited Jeju island and stayed at a hotel were many conference attendees were residing. The illness only seems to be spreading through hospitals where infected patients were treated and the World Health Organization had not issued any travel bans. At the airports passengers wearing paper masks were pulled aside and checked for MERS symptoms (high fever), many flights through China were canceled, and the population of tourists on the island was noticeable scarce. But despite these concerns, we all had a productive and enjoyable week on the island. Korea is a beautiful country with the friendliest people and I can’t wait to go back!
Korea travel photo gallery: