Dave Krabbenhoft

Position: Research Hydrologist, Geochemist, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Wisconsin Water Science Center

Best known for: Krabbenhoft has devoted his working life to studying the sources of mercury pollution throughout the United States and around the world.

This has resulted in breakthrough research and a key role advising the Environmental Protection Agency on regulations to reduce mercury emissions from utilities and assisting the U.S. negotiators regarding a United Nations treaty to limit global mercury contamination.

Mercury, especially in the form of methyl mercury, is an extremely toxic chemical. It occurs both naturally and as the result of human activities, including the burning of coal for electrical generation. Eating seafood is the primary way humans are exposed to the heavy metal, with studies showing tuna harvested in the Pacific Ocean accounts for 40 percent of the total exposure.

Krabbenhoft and his USGS colleagues have provided documentation showing the link between power plant emissions and the rise of mercury contamination levels in fish. They have also identified the means by which the toxin has been transported atmospherically to oceans and waterways and then turned into its most lethal form through various natural and man-made processes.

Krabbenhoft’s research group is active on a number of projects that include the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean and freshwater systems from Alaska to New England. He recently released a landmark study pointing to the role of human activities as the cause of contamination and changing the makeup of the North Pacific.

Government work: Krabbenhoft joined the USGS in 1988 as a research scientist at the Wisconsin Water Science Center and founded the agency’s Mercury Research Laboratory in 1994.

Motivation for service: A love of the environment and a passion for keeping lakes, streams and aquatic life healthy has been Krabbenhoft’s primary motivation for his research work on mercury contamination. He lives by the mantra “leave it better than I found it.”

Biggest challenge: The development of a complete story regarding the toxicity of mercury and the impact on human health and wildlife must allow for a thorough scientific understanding of the problems, but not be so complex that it cannot be understood and used by regulators and resource managers.

Quote: “Studying the mercury issue and making the findings available to achieve real outcomes is a match made in heaven.”

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