The global roots of pre-1900 legacy mercury

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    During the nineteenth century, a major change took place in the trade, production, and use of mercury that altered its nearly exclusive link to silver refining in the Hispanic New World. We track the global expansion of mercury markets in chronological detail from 1511 to 1900 using historical archives on production and trade, a detailed country-by-country accounting of the pool of anthropogenic mercury from which legacy mercury was ultimately generated. The nature and profile of pre-1900 legacy mercury extends beyond silver refining, mercury production, and gold extraction, and includes alternate sources (vermilion, felt, mercury fulminate) and new regions that were not major silver or gold producers (China, India, United Kingdom, France, among others), that accounted for approximately 50% of total mercury consumed in the nineteenth century. The nature of the pre-1900 mercury market requires a quantitative distinction between legacy mercury and historic anthropogenic mercury production and use, since the chemistry of its end-uses determines the pathways and timelines for its incorporation into the global biogeochemical cycle. We thus introduce the concept of a mercury source pool to account for total historic anthropogenic mercury within and outside this cycle. Together with a critical review of previous assumptions used to reconstruct the historical use and loss of mercury, a much lower level of emissions of pre-1900 legacy mercury is proposed. A coordinated effort across disciplines is needed, to complete a historically accurate scenario that can guide the multilateral policies adopted under the United Nations Minamata Convention to control mercury in the environment.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalPNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number31
    Publication statusPublished - 2023

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