Researchers are worried about metals in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem

Jul 14, 2022, 6:53 PM | Updated: Jul 26, 2022, 3:26 pm

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

SALT LAKE CITY — While the Great Salt Lake is facing drought and drying up, it’s also fighting off toxic metals entering its waters.

Materials like mercury and lead are entering the Lake’s ecosystem and traveling up through the food chain from the plants to the insects and then the birds.

It’s a problematic chain of events that Dr. Edd Hammill, an associate professor from Watershed Science, is looking into.

“All of these metals are unfortunately very toxic,” Hammill said. “I mean, they include fun things like lead, mercury, selenium, so as a result, they’re not great.”

Dr. Edd Hammil, associate professor with Watershed Science

That’s because those metals tend to bind much more effectively to biological tissues than soils.

So the plants are literally drinking in those pollutants up from within the wetlands, which causes the wildlife to consume the pollutants from them.

“They call the process bio-accumulation and bio-magnification, so because these metals bind to biological tissues, it means that when a predator eats its prey, it ingests all the metals that prey has ever encountered in its life,” Hammill explains.

And that’s a problem. While the food chain here may not make it directly back to us, the toxins stay in the ecosystem both here and beyond, as those metals make it into migratory birds.

“So that means they’re collecting these insects. In some cases, they’re feeding them to their offspring,” Hammill said. “So these brand-new chicks are getting potentially quite big doses of metals straight away, the moment they hatch.”

Chopper 5 viewing the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake.

That’s why a big focus now is getting those materials out of the ecosystem.

Hammill said they’re looking into less-leafy plants that fewer insects eat and that could be put here to soak in those harmful metals as a type of bio-remediation.

“They harvest the plant tissue from the ground, take it somewhere else, bury it deep down in the ground, and that effectively removes it out of the ecosystem,” he continues.

However, it doesn’t fix the main problem of stopping these metals from entering the Great Salt Lake.

“We know full well there’s a lot of industrial processes on the Great Salt Lake. We’ve known for a long time that there are many pathways that these metals can come in, and so it wasn’t unexpected,” Hammill said.

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Researchers are worried about metals in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem