The Washington Post

USGS scientist uses mercury contamination research to inform policymakers

(Jack Green, USGS)

During his first day on the job as a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 1988, Dave Krabbenhoft was confronted with what he calls “a befuddling problem.” What was the cause of high levels of mercury in fish caught in the lakes of northern Wisconsin?

For more than two decades, 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 (EPA) on regulations to reduce mercury emissions from utilities and assisting U.S. officials negotiating a United Nations treaty to limit global mercury contamination.

“I love doing research that will help policymakers make the best decisions to solve problems,” said Krabbenhoft. “For me, studying the mercury issue and making the findings available to achieve real outcomes is a match made in heaven.”

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 that total exposure.

Krabbenhoft and USGS colleagues have provided documentation showing the link between power plant emissions and the rise of mercury contamination levels in fish, and the various 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.

Who is Dave Krabbenhoft?

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

RESIDENCE: Middleton, Wisconsin

AGE: 53

EDUCATION: North Dakota St. University, B.S.; University of Wisconsin, M.S. and Ph.D.

AWARDS: North Dakota St. University, B.S.; University of Wisconsin, M.S. and Ph.D.

HOBBIES: Golf and do-it yourself plumber, electrician and carpenter

VOLUNTEER WORK: Works with a youth group at church and helps out at a child care center

“Dave is one of those rare examples of a scientist who is not only a leader in his field, but a born communicator who is able to get across exactly why his research is vital to the public,” said USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball.

“Mercury in the environment is recognized as a dangerous and pervasive problem globally, as witnessed by the recent United Nations treaty,” she said. “Dave’s pioneering work is reaching those who can most effectively use it to minimize the effects of this toxic substance.”

The U.N. treaty adopted earlier this year seeks to curb emissions of mercury from power plants and other industrial facilities, and to limit its use in products from batteries and light bulbs to cosmetics and medical equipment.

Krabbenhoft works through the USGS’s Mercury Research Laboratory that he established in 1994. In addition, his research team maintains and operates USGS Mobile Atmospheric Mercury Lab, which has the capability for rapid deployment and advanced study of atmospheric mercury and air chemistry.

The research group is active on a variety of projects involving the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean, and freshwater systems from Alaska to New England.

Krabbenhoft recently took a big step toward answering long-standing questions about mercury in the oceans with the release of a landmark study pointing to the role of human activities in releasing the contaminant and the changing makeup of the North Pacific.

In an earlier study of the lakes in Wisconsin, his team perfected a means to more accurately measure mercury levels in fish and through the research determined that the toxic contamination was “coming from atmosphere and not from the ground or a landfill or the end of a pipe.” He also headed a large research team that demonstrated how seemingly unrelated land and water use practices helped drive up the level of mercury pollution in the Florida Everglades.

As part of his work, Krabbenhoft has authored or coauthored more than 100 papers on mercury in the environment.

Krabbenhoft said his love of the environment, his passion for keeping lakes, streams and aquatic life healthy and his concern for public health have been the primary motivation for his research. He said he lives by the mantra of “leave it better than I found it,” and has been driven by the need to find answers and solve problems.

George Aiken, a USGS colleague in Colorado, said Krabbenhoft is “extremely hard working and passionate about his science.”

“He does a lot of research, publishes in top tier journals and has had a significant influence on resource managers and policymakers, which is not always the case for a scientist,” said Aiken.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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