Simple Test Developed to Determine the Presence of Mercury in Water

February 28th, 2013

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Burgos in Spain announced that they have developed a new test to detect mercury in water that can be used by anyone, even those individuals without knowledge of water chemistry. This innovative test, which is discussed in more detail in the Analytical Methods journal, only requires submerging a test sheet in the water for five minutes. If mercury is present in the water at or above the EPA maximum contaminant level of 2 parts per billion, the sheet will turn red.

Credit:  J.M Garcia et al.

Color analysis of the mercury water test using a mobile device. Credit: J.M Garcia et al.

In addition to being able to quickly detect the presence of mercury, the researchers have also created the ability for a mobile device to assist in determining the amount of mercury present as well. The user first takes a picture of the sheet with a mobile phone or tablet. Image treatment software such as GIMP, which is free, open-access software, is then used to compare the particular shade of red with reference values. Essentially each shade of red represents a different concentration of mercury.  The ability to simply use a mobile device to analyze a water sample makes this test very unique. The researchers claim that this test is inexpensive however it is currently unknown how it will compare to mercury water test kits currently available.

Mercury is a toxic metal that can be released through processes such as the burning of coal and oil, incineration of mercury-containing materials, or through natural erosion of rock and soil. The mercury eventually is deposited in the water. Drinking water with high levels of mercury can harm the nervous system, leading to nervousness, irritability, changes in vision or hearing, and memory issues. Young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of mercury. It is unknown whether drinking water contaminated with low levels of mercury for a long period of time causes any effects as well.

Microorganisms in the water can also convert the mercury to methylmercury which is a highly toxic form of mercury that can accumulate in organisms such as fish and shellfish. When consumed, the methylmercury can damage the kidneys as well as the nervous system. Nearly all of the 50 states have had at least one fish consumption advisory related to mercury which suggests that it is an abundant contaminant. Since mercury is a contaminant of concern in both the US and abroad, an easy and potentially inexpensive analytical tool like this new mercury water test should prove to be very useful.


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