North

New machine at Yukon College will open up mercury research in the territory

The Direct Mercury Analyzer will allow researcher's at Yukon College to better understand how much of the toxic pollutant is in the Yukon environment.

Yukon researcher to create territory's 1st data set of the chemical element in the permafrost

Mary Gamberg, a researcher in arctic wildlife contamination at Yukon College, tests a piece of salmon in the Direct Mercury Analyzer. It's helping researchers better understand how the chemical element is affecting the Yukon's environment. (CBC/Wayne Vallevand)

The Direct Mercury Analyzer might not look very exciting, but it's creating new research opportunities at Yukon College.

The machine test samples things like fish and permafrost for mercury levels, helping researchers better understand how the chemical element is affecting the Yukon environment.

"It will make mercury analysis much more accessible," said Mary Gamberg, a researcher in arctic wildlife contamination at Yukon College. 

Before the machine arrived in March, researchers had to send their field samples south for testing. That meant waiting anywhere from six weeks to six months for the results, according to Gamberg. 

Mary Gamberg, researcher at Yukon College in contaminants in arctic wildlife, hopes to open a new field of research looking at mercury contamination in fish across the territory (CBC/Wayne Vallevand)

"We will be independent, we will be self-sufficient, we can do all of the work in-house which is tremendous," she said.

Gamberg is one of the scientists that pushed to get this technology in the territory. It cost $70,000 and was paid for by the Northern Contaminants Program.

Gamberg said she hopes to open a new field of research that specifically looks at mercury contamination in fish across the Yukon.

"It's especially of concern for women of childbearing years because the mercury gets into the growing fetus, so it's just good to be aware of what's in the fish you're eating," she said. 

Gamberg has tested mercury in lake trout from Lake Laberge and Kusawa Lake as well as some fish in Old Crow but has a vision to expand the research.

What is mercury?

Mercury is a toxic pollutant that occurs naturally in the environment through the mercury cycle.

It can be dangerous to humans and animals when it takes the form of methylmercury, possibly causing neurological problems such as motor impairment and birth defects when in high concentrations. 

Researcher Louis-Philippe Roy will be collecting samples of permafrost from across the territory to create a baseline data set of mercury levels in Yukon's permafrost.

"It hasn't been done quite as extensively as other analysis," he said.

Researcher Louis-Philippe Roy will be collecting samples of permafrost from across the territory to create a baseline data set of mercury levels in Yukon’s permafrost (CBC/Jackie McKay)

Roy said with increased degradation of the permafrost, it's possible mercury is leaching into the environment, accumulating in water systems and making its way through the food chain. 

Testing for mercury will become a standard procedure in the college's permafrost research.

"It's great to have this instrument here in the Yukon and for Yukoners," Roy said. 

Yukon College students will also benefit from having this technology.

Gamberg will be taking a group of students to catch fish on the land to test in the machine at the end of the month.

The geological technology program will also use the machine to analyze soil and water samples from around mines and future mining areas to better understand the relationship between mining activities and mercury in the environment.

"It will provide tremendous teaching opportunities," Gamberg said. 

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