A ring of mercury that is said to be roughly 7,500 in circumference was discovered surrounding the tar sands in northeast Alberta, Canada.
The site is thought to be the third largest oil reserve in the world but requires an intensive process to extract the crude oil due to the fact that the crude is mixed with bitumen, sand and clay.
The findings were presented by Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk at a recent international toxicology conference and revealed that the contaminated area was "currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oil sands developments."
Environment Canada found that the mercury traces were up to 16 times higher than other areas in the region. Now scientists with Environment Canada are conducting field tests of local wildlife as well as collecting soil and water samples to gain a better understanding of the contamination. It has been revealed that samples taken further away from the production site contain less mercury, however the health effects related to mercury contamination are still cause for concern.
Mercury can cause birth defects as well as brain damage through chronic exposure such as through the accumulation in wildlife that is consumed. Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq had signed an international treaty in October pledging to reduce mercury releases in processes such as tar sand operations.
"Here we have a direct source of methyl mercury being emitted in this region and deposited to the landscapes and water bodies," Kirk said of the findings. "So come snowmelt that methyl mercury is now going to enter lakes and rivers where potentially it could be taken up directly by organisms and then bioaccumulated and biomagnified though food webs."
It is suspected that the accumulation of mercury in the local ecosystem was due to "dust and land disturbances" that are produced when excavators extract bitumen from large open pit mines in the oil sands.
"To our knowledge, emissions data from blowing dusts due to various landscape disturbances (open pit mines, exposed coke piles, new roads, etc.) and volatilization from tailing ponds are not publicly available," co-investigator Derek Muir, head of Environment Canada's ecosystem contaminants dynamics section, said in a statement.