Environment Canada scientists have indicated that the Alberta, Canada tar sands have been exposed to a high contamination of mercury. The scientists found a 7,300-square-mile ring of mercury around the tar sands where energy companies mine the sands for fossil fuels.

Environment Canada, Canada’s government environmental agency, believes there is a direct correlation between the tar-sands operation and the mercury levels surrounding the mining site. Researchers Jane Kirk and Derek Muir said that mercury concentration is highest near tar-sands operations but extends outward for 19,000 kilometers. Kirk and Muir conducted their research by studying various earthly materials from over 100 sites in the tar-sands area.

“Here we have a direct source of methylmercury being emitted in this region and deposited to the landscapes and water bodies,” said Kirk. “So come snowmelt that methylmercury is now going to enter lakes and rivers where potentially it could be taken up directly by organisms and then bioaccumulated and biomagnified through food webs.”

Methylmercury is the more toxic form of mercury that is produced as natural microbes alter mercury’s state when the metal is introduced to aquatic ecosystems and bioaccumulates, or travels up the food chain. Because of bioaccumulation, environmentalists are concerned. Such high concentrations of methylmercury could potentially damage hunting, fishing, and wildlife in general as the mercury travels downstream from the tar-sand operation sites.

Scientists discovered 1,000 nanograms of mercury and 19 nanograms of methylmercury per square meter near tar-sands operations, 16 times higher than Alberta’s background load. Prolonged exposure to methylmercury can be very hazardous to organisms in contact with it, causing birth defects and brain damage in humans. Mercury toxicity has also proven to be dangerous to animals.

Methylmercury is most dangerous to the central nervous system and the kidneys. In Minamata, Japan, birds that were exposed to methylmercury had difficulty flying and their eggs experienced complications in fetal development. In the last 25 years, mercury levels in some Arctic mammals have increased 2- to 4- fold.

According to the Canadian government:

Fish-eating species in regions with higher mercury deposition, and in areas that favour methylation such as partially acidified water – Global Mercury Assessment – Impacts of mercury on the environment sheds, watersheds with large wetlands high in dissolved organic carbon, and reservoirs, are expected to be most at risk from increased dietary mercury exposure.

Despite the number of studies that examine mercury contamination in Canadian soil caused by tar-sands operations, a concrete, projected impact on ecosystems and the food chain is still undetermined. “Is it affecting fish levels and is it going to result in increasing fish consumption advisories?” said Kirk. “We don’t know.”

What’s worse, is that the Alberta government turned tar-sands regulatory duties to a Canadian energy-industry funded corporation, the Alberta Energy Regulator. By using the government to back them, Canadian oil companies have more room to approve provisions beneficial to environment-harming energy conglomerates.

Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.