A new, advanced analyzer will make it much easier for the Environ-mental Protection Administration (EPA) to study mercury levels in the environment, as well as the metal's effects on public health.
The newly-purchased mercury analyzer, which costs NT$2 million, will mainly be operated by the administration's Environmental Analysis Laboratory.
It will be used to examine samples collected from seriously polluted rivers, such as the Erjen River in Tainan County, to map out a clear picture of the distribution of mercury in the environment.
Whereas conventional methods of measuring mercury levels in people's hair take up to five hours, the new analyzer is able to produce a result in seven minutes.
"With the efficient mercury analyzer, Taiwan's investigations into mercury levels in the environment and on the health effects of low-level exposure to mercury can be carried out efficiently," deputy EPA administrator Tsay Ting-kuei (
Hair is regarded as a meaningful and representative body tissue for the biological monitoring of most toxic metals, such as mercury and lead. Scientists have suggested that the relationship between levels of metal in hair and human health is a complex process related to exposure, absorption and tissue distribution of essential and toxic elements.
In 2000, scientists claimed that lead poisoning had caused the composer Ludwig van Beethoven's chronic illness. Beethoven died in 1827 at age 57. Researchers found unusually high levels of lead in eight strands of Beethoven's hair, with concentrations 100 times the levels of lead commonly found in people today.
Nowadays, in addition to lead, mercury has become a hot topic among Western scientists.
The chemical is found naturally in the environment in several forms. In its elemental form, mercury is a shiny, silver-white, liquid metal used in thermometers and some electrical switches. It can also be combined with other elements to form inorganic compounds.
A trial analysis has been conducted at the EPA lab. Hairs sampled from 104 people living in northern Taoyuan County were analyzed.
Results showed mercury levels ranging from 0.012ppm to 9.08ppm. The average level was 2.29ppm. The mercury level in about 24 percent of samples exceeded 1ppm, a reference level set by the US.
In a survey conducted early this year in the US involving 1,449 samples, the hair mercury level in only 20.3 percent of targets exceeded 1ppm.
"This doesn't mean that Taiwanese are exposed to higher levels of mercury in the environment. We need to increase the number of our samples to more than 1,000 in order to get more scientific results," said Wang Cheng-hsung (
Wang said that it is still uncertain which factors cause higher mercury levels in hair, but a link to age and diet could not be ruled out.
"We found that the hair mercury levels of elderly people and those who eat lots of fish are higher," Wang said.
EPA officials said that the main sources of mercury in the environment are incineration, the steel industry, the cement industry and waste treatment.