Women and Mercury: new approaches to minimize mercury exposure

Women and Mercury: new approaches to minimize mercury exposure


On June 17, 2020 HEJSupport held a webinar on the topic of women and mercury. Internationally recognized experts shared new approaches to minimize mercury exposure and highlight the needs and voices of women. The speakers included Yuyun Ismawati (Nexus3 Foundation), Prof Donna Mergler (Université QAM), Prof Mélanie Lemire (Université Laval), Pamela Miller (ACATA and IPEN), and Marianne Bailey (Minamata Convention Secretariat).


Listen to the audio of the webinar.


Women are affected differently by chemicals, because of their gender role and their physiology. Often policies, projects and research do not take this into account. To change the approach and to make women`s voices heard, HEJSupport International started its Webinar Series on Women and Chemicals. Our first webinar in this series is focused on women and mercury.

Mercury is one of the major environmental pollutants. There are three forms of mercury, i.e., elemental (or metallic) mercury, inorganic mercury compounds, and organic mercury compounds. Routes of human exposure to mercury includes food like fish, seafood, wildlife and even rice. Mercury vapor can be inhaled during mercury evaporation in different processes, including from dental amalgam restorations. Mercury containing skin lightening creams is also a known route of mercury exposure.

Women living and working close to industrial sources of mercury emissions and releases, or in small gold mining communities suffer from mercury exposure. However even those living in industry free areas, but consuming mercury contaminated food are also exposed to this toxic and non-essential metal in the human body.

Mercury is highly toxic. Many severe, irreversible, and deadly diseases are associated with mercury exposure. What is even more troubling is that mercury can cross the placenta and accumulate in fetal tissues. Prenatal exposure to mercury poses a health threat particularly to the developing brain. Being the first environment for children, women at the same time could unwillingly become a threat to their future babies and sometimes are blamed by their partners for giving birth to sick kids.

At the HEJSupport webinar the problem of mercury exposure on women from the perspective of developing and developed countries is highlighted and solutions are discussed. Five experts present their views on different aspects of mercury exposure on women. Please, see the video recording and the presentations from Yuyun Ismawati from Indonesia, professor Donna Mergler and Professor Melanie Lemire from Canada, Pamela Miller from Alaska, and Marianne Bailey from the Minamata Convention Secretariat.

Yuyun Ismawati, Nexus3 Foundation

Mercury and Women: new ideas on how to reduce the risk

Main points of the presentation

Mercury comes from the emissions of processes (such as mining) as well as products we use. People are exposed to mercury from various sources through air, water, and food pathways. Humans consume methylmercury in food after mercury is transformed by microorganisms and bioaccumulation in aquatic species.

Mercury exposure in humans can be traced through biomarkers (in hair, cord blood, etc).

The outcomes of mercury exposure differ between individuals based on a variety of factors, including nutrient intake, the immune system, dose and duration of exposure.

In humans, fish consumption is the primary source of mercury exposure.

Pregnant women are very sensitive to nutrient intake. The effects of heavy metals and high concentrations of mercury are capable of affecting fetal development. Congenital Minamata disease can cause birth defects and malformation.

There has been a 21st century gold rush in 77 countries globally. Mercury is used to extract gold. Resulting air exposure to mercury affects not only the miners, but people in surrounding areas.

25-33% of miners or 3.3-6.5 million miners globally suffered from  Chronic Metallic Mercury Vapour Intoxication.

High concentrations of mercury in the body can affect kidney functioning, as well as general metabolism

Mercury poisoning can be either acute or chronic. For chronic mercury poisoning, there can be a latency period of up to 15 years.

A study out of Iraq examining acute mercury poisoning from grains contaminated with fungicides showed that an increase in mercury concentration (measured by mercury hair level) led to increasing community health problems. After the contaminated grain products were removed, the number of populations with health problems decreased.

Preventive measures include: prohibiting mercury use in products and processes, monitoring biomarkers and environmental matrices, improving health service and surveillance in mercury hotspots, health monitoring for women of child-bearing age (especially during pregnancy), training health workers to identify the symptoms of mercury intoxication, establishing national policy based on precautionary prevention strategies, and the implementation of national monitoring programs to ensure the safety of food and nutritional surveillance to ensure healthy diet among vulnerable groups.

Lessons learned from Minamata: act on symptoms (such as biomarkers), identify the sources, investigate health effects, implement liability and compensation, raise public awareness, clean-up the site in a timely manner.

Donna Mergler, Professor Emerita at the University of Quebec at Montreal
Grassy Narrows community health study: the intergenerational impact of mercury exposure

Main points of the presentation

A brief history of mercury exposure in Grassy Narrows

The people of Grassy Narrow First Nation inhabit the Wabigoon-English River Basin, which historically, provided them with fish and was central to their culture and traditions.

Between 1962 and 1972, 10,000 kg of mercury were discharged into the Wabigoon English River System by a chloralkali plant.

Fishing activities were ceased, and unemployment went from 15% to 85%

Since 1985, mercury concentration in fish has decreased, but is still higher than in other Ontario fishing areas

Judy Da Silva is a prominent activist from Grassy Narrows fighting the effects of mercury exposure on the community

Since the people of Grassy Narrows have historical connections to the water, mercury poisoning has had devastating effects on the community

Methylmercury is actively transported across the placenta and concentrations in umbilical cord blood are higher than mother’s blood

A community-driven and community-lead community health assessment was conducted between December 2016 and March 2017 using house-to-house surveys. Adult and child questionnaires were conducted with a participation rate of 78%.

The community health assessment included mothers born between 1961 and 1998, and children born between 1999 and 2017.

The umbilical cord blood mercury concentration was higher for mothers whose fathers had been fishing guides, and lower for mothers whose fathers had not been fishing guides.

For the mothers, mercury exposure during childhood was significantly associated with: father having been a fishing guide, having done poorly in school, poor health, high psychological distress, and a current income of lower than $20,000/year.

Higher fish consumption during pregnancy was associated with an increase in emotional and behavioural problems, poor health, and more health conditions that impact school performance in children.

31% of children had been in the care of Family and Social Services at least once. Factors associated with children having been in care include the child’s age; maternal drinking; maternal grandmother having been in a residential school; and maternal grandfather having been a fishing guide.

Conclusion: Mercury discharge into Grassy Narrows territory had and continues to have deleterious effects from one generation to the next. In 2020, our study was published showing that mercury exposure in Grassy Narrows was associated with early death (less than 60 years of age), depriving the community of elders who have an important role in passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.

For the past 50 years, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation have organized many community, national, and international activities in their fight for environmental justice. Their demands include: river remediation, a centre for care and therapy, improvements in the mercury Disability Board, adequate global compensation to the community.

Mélanie Lemire, associate professor at the Department of preventive and social medicine at Laval University

The challenges of promoting local country foods while reducing Hg exposure during pregnancy in Nunavik

Main points of the presentation

Food that Inuit call traditional food or country food is central to Inuit culture and health

Country foods from the land, rivers, and sea are central to culture, all exceptional sources of nutrients, and are real foods devoid of industrial food additives. Some may accumulate environmental contaminants.

Mercury travels to the North through atmospheric emissions and currents.There is no local source of mercury in Nunavik.

Inuit exposure to mercury is among the highest in the world.

In 2004, the percentage of women of childbearing age with blood mercury levels above the Health Canada guideline was 53% in Nunavik.

The percentage of women of child-bearing age with blood mercury levels above Health Canada guidelines varies regionally and is the highest in Hudson Strait where most whales are consumed.

The health effects of mercury which have been documented in adults in Nunavik include elevated blood pressure and decreased heart rate variability, and lower paraoxonase activity.

Very high acute doses, and chronic doses of mercury seem to have similar health effects.

The Nutaratsaliit qanuingisiarningit niqituninnanut study is being conducted to try and promote traditional country foods while reducing mercury exposure.

Serum PCB has decreased 83% since 1992 (due to the implementation of the Stockholm Convention).

Blood mercury levels have decreased by 66% since 1992. In 2017, 23% of pregnant women still presented with blood mercury levels above what is recommended to protect the unborn child.

Mercury levels in hair vary monthly – exposure is way lower in winter and way higher in the summer, corresponding with hunting seasons.

Beluga meat is high in mercury whereas most other country foods are low in mercury. Beluga mattaaq is high in selenium and low in mercury. Country foods are an excellent source of iron.

In the Arctic, food insecurity is highly prevalent, and iron deficiency and anemia are common. Country foods are an excellent source of iron, which means that mercury contamination is not an issue that can be treated in isolation.

In the study, only a third of participants were aware of the message encouraging pregnant women to reduce their beluga meat consumption.

Environmental contaminants in the arctic are an environmental injustice and a threat to indigenous rights to healthy foods. At the international and federal level, new harmful chemicals should be monitored and banned. Our goal is to find a solution to promote country foods while avoiding mercury and lead exposure.

Pamela Miller, CoChair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and a founder of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)

Mercury contamination in women and children from Arctic to Cook Islands: IPEN raises alarm and requires action

Main points of the presentation

Mission: To assure justice by advocating for environmental and community health. We believe everyone has a right to clean air, clean water, and toxic-free food.

Annie Alowa, a former community health worker, observed the range of adverse health effects resulting from mercury contamination and acted to hold the military accountable.

There are 700 active and abandoned military sites in Alaska.

Inuit communities are affected because they are reliant on traditional foods.

Many contaminants which arrive at the Arctic to do on wind and ocean currents. To eliminate contamination in the Arctic, it is necessary to work at the international level to eliminate pollutants.

In Southeast Asia, India, and China, there are heavy emissions from coal combustion.. There is concern about the mercury transport between Asia and Alaska. Coal mined in Alaska is transported to Asia, air pollution travels from Asia to Alaska, and air pollutants are transported via air currents, causing mercury to build up in the food web and leading to human exposure.

Kuskokwim Watershed in Alaska was once a heavily industrialized mercury mining area. There is now a large-scale gold mine proposed, which would liberate a large amount of mercury to a watershed that already has elevated levels.

Mercury is highly toxic to human health. The solution is to phase out coal and other fossil fuels that are sources of mercury.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxic chemical with other effects as well. Children are particularly susceptible.

A science-based threshold would set the limit at 0.58ppm (the current level is set at 1ppm, at which there still can be adverse effects).

A study of 1044 women of childbearing age from countries around the world found 42% had mercury levels greater than 1ppm. Elevated levels of mercury are particularly found in communities with diets high in fish, small island developing states, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) communities, and fish consumers near industrial hotspots.

0.58ppm is the desired threshold, since it is more protective. In Alaska, 30% of participants exceeded 1ppm and 70% exceeded the 0.58ppm level.

Conclusions: Do not advise against the consumption of traditional foods because they are important to the community; instead, examine foods with lower levels of exposure to promote informed decisions made on a local basis.

The overall goal of the Minamata Convention is to protect the environment and human health from anthropogenic mercury pollution. It is important to work in solidarity with communities around the world, including victims of mercury exposure, to reduce and eliminate this toxic metal.

Solutions include phasing out industrial processes that result in mercury emissions, stopping the use of mercury in products, eliminating the mercury trade, identifying and cleaning up contaminated sites, using alternatives to mercury in ASGM,  and stopping the mining of mercury.

Marianne Bailey, Programme Officer for Technical Assistance and Capacity Building at the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention on Mercury

The role of the Minamata Convention: What needs to be achieved at the policy and implementation levels to reduce women’s exposure to mercury

Main points of the presentation

The Convention embodies a variety of policy measures. However, they won’t mean anything unless they are implemented.

The Convention’s priorities were set globally. The Convention has a whole supportive infrastructure that allows for broad implementation which fits in all community situations.

The Convention takes a life cycle approach to mercury. It was negotiated in such a way as to work to address the root causes of mercury pollution problems. Primary objectives include to prevent its use in mining operations and to remove a significant amount of mercury from circulation.

There is a web of support that is intended to ensure the Convention functions effectively. There is currently an effectiveness evaluation being planned.

The artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) industry is the largest user and emitter of mercury globally. There are at least 15 million ASGM miners around the world. Additionally, according to Global Environment Facility (GEF), “the mining system stands out for the feminization of poverty and the undervaluation of female work.” In Africa, women make up a significant percentage of ASGM workers. ASGM communities are dependent on global supply chains for the success of their work. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, women in ASGM have become even more vulnerable, as they are affected by supply chain disruptions.

Under the Minamata Convention, countries can adapt their National Action Plans to fit into their broader development plans, which can make their commitments more sustainable.

Certain types of mercury exposure disproportionately affect women. For example, women are the primary consumers of skin-lightening creams, which can lead to mercury exposure.

Financial mechanisms to support implementation of the actions outlined in the Minamata Convention include the Global Environment Facility and the Specific International Programme.

In order to achieve success, project design and training must be well-planned. The Global Environment Facility involves explicit gender-responsive approaches, such as: ensuring women’s participation and role in natural resources decision-making processes; targeting women as specific beneficiaries; investing in women’s skills and capacity; supporting women’s improved access, use, and control of natural resources; and considering gender in the chemicals and wastes value chain.

Currently, there is work being done to advance gender equity through digital learning. Delivering capacity-building and technical assistance support to the Minamata parties in light of COVID-19 restrictions has prompted the Minamata Secretariat to engage with donors and experts on how to best strengthen the Secretariat’s ability to deliver more digital learning and knowledge exchange opportunities for 2020-2021. To be successful, the design of digital learning initiatives must have interactive elements and must address the learning needs and context of participants.

Questions and Answers

Are there any Indigenous groups of women concerned by all questions related to the environment and health that we could reach out to?

Pamela Miller: There is an Indigenous Women’s Caucus that has been participating in the Stockholm Convention. I would be glad to provide that information.

Why wasn’t Labrador (Nunatsiavut) included in the presentation? It only states places such as Nunavik, Nunavut.

Mélanie Lemire: Ullakut. Yes there have been studies on mercury in Nunatsiavut, including the Inuit Health Survey in 2007-2009. Our team works mostly in Nunavik and I had little time, so this is why I focused my talk on this region. If I remember well, the good news is that mercury exposure in Nunatsiavut is a bit lower as beluga is not as often consumed in this region. Please don’t hesitate to write me an email if you have questions or want to be in touch with researchers/regional organisation in Nunatsiavut:

Marianne, the course you mentioned, is it the same which is provided by UNEP? Gender & Env.?

Marianne Bailey: Yes it is. I’ve seen it on many different partner websites, but it is that course.

Regarding cosmetics and mercury, should we launch a campaign to eliminate mercury in cosmetics? Also, what about nano-mercury in cosmetics?

Yuyun Ismawati: There are many countries who currently monitor mercury in cosmetics. It’s related to law enforcement and vigorous monitoring. I believe in Annex A of the Minamata Convention, it was phased out by 2020. But it depends on how countries regulate this. Exemption of mercury use for mascara was listed. I think if we have enough evidence that mercury in cosmetics can severely impact women, we can submit comments or request to review the Annex to make it more specific. Because at the moment it is very general.

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo: With the Zero Mercury Working Group (which is a coalition of NGOs from 55 countries), we have a campaign working on the use of mercury in creams. There are a few reports on the website. This is a very gender-related issue, since it is mainly women who use these creams.

I have a question for Donna Mergler. Grassy Narrows – is it near other communities, and are there any studies going on?

Donna Mergler: A few communities were affected by the discharge, including Grassy Narrows. There are many studies going on at different levels. I mentioned the demands that Grassy Narrows has; there are studies with environmental scientists examining remediation of the river system. The mercury has remained on top of the sediment, which was not expected back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it happened. Sources of mercury came from industries such as clean-cut logging. A former worker came forward and said they had buried barrels of mercury in the chloralkali plant. There are environmental studies going on. We are continuing to work with communities on health, and analyzing data from the community health assessment with respect to previous mercury exposure.

I am certain in our part of the world, many people who live on the fish business are not aware of the mercury existence in the sea. How can one provide awareness without getting into a clash with the authorities or industrial owners?

Pamela Miller: That’s a great question. I think raising awareness and conducting necessary biomonitoring projects is essential. And involving fisherman in community-based research is an essential first step. Just ensuring good, solid scientific studies that involve the communities are the first step. Inform communities and officials so actions can be taken to reduce exposure. Involving those most affected in design and implementation.

Mélanie Lemire: For the fish industry, it is important to remember that these species are often large. It is important to promote local fish, and those species lower in the food chain.

Donna Mergler: It is important to know the community context to maximize benefits and minimize risks. Just telling people not to eat fish is not a healthy alternative. It is important to understand how it is going through the environment, and the benefits and risks of traditional foods. People are eating smaller fish, and have programs to identify links with (lower vs. higher) mercury content so they fish in lakes with less mercury.


Human exposure to mercury has been demonstrated to have a variety of adverse health effects. For several reasons, the negative consequences of mercury exposure impact women in a variety of unique ways. The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty which seeks to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic mercury pollution. In order for this to occur, it is important to implement a variety of innovative solutions that address the root causes of mercury emissions and contamination. Moving forward, the voices of those who have been affected by mercury toxicity and environmental injustice must be prioritized. The decades-long efforts of the Grassy Narrows First Nation is a great example of the role women play to protect their community from exposure to deadly contaminants and to fight for the right to leave in a healthy and safe environment.

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Written by Olga Speranskaya