Joe Knows MOSES

The DMA-80 Mercury Analyzer is a long way from the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76!

The MassDEP’s Inorganic Chemistry Lab at the Wall Experiment Station in Lawrence is responsible for the ongoing Mercury Initiative Program. The initiative, a multi-year cycle that visits and re-visits hundreds of different lakes and ponds in the state, is tasked with monitoring mercury levels in fish. Assisting scientists with this monumental task is the DMA-80 Mercury Analyzer. MassDEP Commissioner David Cash jokes, “It’s kind of like the Bass-O-Matic, but considerably more precise.”

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Mercury, a highly toxic metal, is dangerous to both humans and the ecosystem. Women who are pregnant or nursing and young children are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning. Mercury finds its way into fish and ultimately the food chain via emissions from power plants, as well as the burning of municipal solid wastes and medical wastes (no longer allowed in the state), among other sources. MassDEP’s aggressive regulatory initiative to further reduce mercury uses and emissions to the environment has resulted in significant improvements in the mercury contamination status of edible portions of freshwater fish here in the Commonwealth.

MOSES member Mike Hutcheson, director of the fish monitoring program at MassDEP, along with MOSES members Jane Rose and Carol Batdorf, as well as fellow DEP employees C. Mark Smith, Oscar Pancorbo, Carol Rowan West, Joseph Strube and Corey Francis, authors of Temporal and Spatial Trends in Freshwater Fish Tissue Mercury Concentrations Associated with Mercury Emissions Reductions, published in Environmental Science & Technology, conducted an in-depth, 12-year study of edible muscle from yellow perch and large mouth bass. For comparison purposes, the study samples were taken from 23 specific lakes, two to eight times between 1999 and 2011.

Hutcheson explains, “We collect samples from two distinct levels on the aquatic food chain. This year, in an effort to not decimate the population, we are changing the process and taking samples from the same dorsal area of 30 yellow perch and 15 large mouth bass on average, then releasing the fish back into the water.”

The analytical work completed at the Wall Experiment Station provides validated data by following rigorous quality control standards set forth by the EPA. The tissue samples collected ultimately land in the dedicated DMA-80 analyzer. Samples – up to 40 at a time – are placed into a tray, then a robotic arm loads each, one by one, into the furnace for drying and decomposition. By combining the techniques of thermal decomposition, catalytic conversion, amalgamation and atomic absorption spectrophotometry, all potential toxic waste is eliminated, yet accurate, detailed results are achieved.

Hutcheson concludes, “Mercury concentrations in fish have declined dramatically during this period of reductions in emissions. While MassDEP staff continue to push for further reductions, regionally and nationally, we as residents and consumers reap the benefits.”

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