My Interview with McKenna Smith on mercury in the environment


Youth for the Environment and Sustainability Conference

I met McKenna Smith at the Youth for Environment and Sustainability conference a few months ago in San Francisco as we were paired in the same room for our presentations. Her presentation was titled,” The unseen devastation of Silicon Valley” which talked about the amount of mercury in our environment and offered a novel solution to clean areas affected by Mercury. McKenna was gracious enough to speak with me about how she came up with the idea for her talk. Here is the transcript of our conversation.

Our conversation

Tony Green:    Thank you for agreeing to talk to me.

McKenna Smith:  Thank you for having me.

Tony Green: I wanted to think a little bit more about where you got the idea with the mercury, because a lot of … all things being green, it’s about solutions. I get excited when people come up with interesting solutions. People should know about all the things that could harm them, and so part of what I try to do is to get the word out, and try to get people to understand, so hopefully they’ll keep this stuff in mind and be able to protect themselves.

McKenna Smith:  I got the idea in sixth grade. I was working on a school project. We had to pick one problem in the Bay Area that we thought we could solve, some kind of green eco project, and we picked mercury poisoning in fish. I just kept doing some research for it, and I kept looking into viable solutions. Eventually, I found the material that I could use. It was created by a Northwestern University professor. I’ve just been trying to do more research on disposal, and where I can do testing, and the toxicity of the mercury, versus where I can take it out of the water, versus where I can take it out of fish, stuff like that. I’ve just been doing research ever since.

Tony Green:  Wow, and so your idea to use the coral kind of came out of your research?

McKenna Smith: Yeah, so the material is a cobalt-molybdenum-sulfur. Basically, what it does is attracts the mercury ions to the particle, and it sticks. Then, you just let it sit in the water for about 48 hours, and the tests that we ran in the lab, I think it was 98 PPM, and it removed almost 87%.

Tony Green:  From your research, where does the mercury come from that’s in the environment?

McKenna Smith:  Some of it originally comes from hydraulic mining during the gold rush. That was a big part. A lot of it comes from the Almaden Quicksilver mine, and other mines in the area. It goes into the runoff, and the runoff seeps into ground water, and that gets into the Bay. It also comes from emissions from factories. Early in the 80s, we had our silicon chip factories, like Silicon Valley. That was us.

Tony Green:  Yeah, I get it. Believe me, I get it.

McKenna Smith: All those factories were in the Bay. They were all right here, in San Francisco. Mercury is one of the main materials used in silicon chips, because it comes with silicon. All those emissions are now settled to the bottom, and they’re trapped under the sediment rather than floating around in the water. The hard part is bleeding it up without disturbing more of the mercury.

Tony Green: In other words, you want to get rid of it, but not really stir it up.

McKenna Smith:  Yeah.

Tony Green: Volatile compounds are the same idea, where it’s volatile but once it’s in the ground, then it’s harmless, right?

McKenna Smith:  Yeah.

Tony Green:   It’s in the ground, but only when you start undigging it is when the problem starts. I know many people think that they can’t make a difference in terms of being involved in their environment, and I wanted to ask you, what would you say to that?

McKenna Smith: I’d laugh at anybody who says, “I’m too young, I’m just a girl, nobody will listen to me.” That is ridiculous. Do not ever, ever let somebody tell you that you can’t make a difference. I started this project in sixth grade, and so far, I’ve been invited to speak at conferences, not just the YES conference but also at the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. They hold a biannual symposium, and I got invited to that one.

I cannot think of any better way to get involved, than just send out some e-mails. Call people. Do your research. Figure out who’s in your field, what you want to do, and call someone. Send an e-mail. Look it up. I e-mailed the Northwestern professor. I just straight-up e-mailed him, and he replied, and he gave me his paper on it. The thing is, scientists are always willing to share their ideas. The whole point of science is to share, and to help each other.

Tony Green: Yeah, I would agree. Someone is going to pick up on this idea, on the business.

McKenna Smith: Really?

Tony Green:  Yeah, I really do, I think … The reason I ask, I can get you money. There’s organizations that I work with in Oakland, that are looking for folks like this, folks who are looking to start businesses, and it gives them seed money for scientists. That’s kind of why I mentioned this. I think it’s something that … It’s part of what I’m trying to do, like looking at college students and high school, and connect them with these ideas, and get them to be entrepreneurs, to make a difference for science.

McKenna Smith: That’s awesome.

Tony Green:  The state sets aside money for stuff like this, and so a lot of people don’t know about that. That’s the whole thing. People should know about that. That’s why someone’s going to figure this out, I’m pretty sure. Since this is your brainstorm, why let someone else steal the thunder? That’s kind of my … I would agree about the whole making money thing, but nonprofit, changing the world, it does cost a little money. This could change, and not even here in the states, in other places.

One of the things, I’ve been working with people in Africa and trying to get a better feel for sustainability. A lot of the things that we kind of take for granted in the Bay here, that isn’t a factor here, may be factors in other places. A lot of the oil problems, all that same … If there’s a mercury solution, there’s other places that mine, all over the world.

McKenna Smith: I think in my research, there’s also a mercury problem over in Maryland and Virginia, Chesapeake River, they have huge mercury problems, too.

Tony Green: Yeah, they have a lot of pesticide problems, the runoff thing.

McKenna Smith: DDT?

Tony Green: Yeah, and it runs into the watershed there. There’s a lot of unique wildlife there that’s in danger.

McKenna Smith: Same with San Francisco; there’s tons of native species here that are in danger as well. I’ve been looking for anywhere that I can apply for grant money, and they really won’t grant large sums of money to high school students, which is a shame.

Tony Green: Wow, so where did you find out everything that you learned about mercury? Was it just on line, or I guess are there typical resources that you can point people in the right direction if they wanted to find out more?

McKenna Smith:  The first thing I … When I was in sixth grade, I just Google searched “material that can remove mercury from water.” I did it through like Google EDU, where it filters all the educational documents, and that was it, and I found my material. From there, I just like e-mailed people, and they sent me documents directly.

One of the websites I used was the San Francisco Bay clean water. It’s just like, and they do research. What else? Yeah, it’s just a lot of Google searches; people. People were my best resource. They will send me papers. They will send you invites to events. They’ll send you the contacts of other people that can help you even more.

Tony Green:  Yeah, that’s part of the speaking. That’s part of how that kind of you meet someone, and you just meet the next person, and you start … You get to the point where you start connecting, and you start running into people you knew from other meetings.

McKenna Smith: Yeah, my best advice would be, e-mail somebody. Just pick some … Even if you think they are way out of your league, like a Northwestern PhD professor. Just e-mail them, and they will reply, or they’ll get their grad student to reply.

Tony Green: They’re people, and again, they realize if there’s something worthwhile-

McKenna Smith: Yeah, exactly.

Tony Green: They would tend to … Yeah, I would agree. I remember, there was a … I think it was a commitment to climate change, it was a presentation, and I found the professor and I e-mailed, “Is there any way you could send me those?”  And suddenly, the slides come back. It was like a 200 deck, master slides, and I was like, “Cool.”

McKenna Smith: Thank you.

Tony Green:  Yeah, exactly, “Thank you.” It’s helpful in terms of information, and sometimes they’ve done all the research and you can borrow the slides and attribute the slides, it makes it easier. Why should people be concerned about mercury, in your view? What’s the problem?

McKenna Smith: I have a hard time convincing people that it’s a problem for humans, because most of the fish that we get is imported.

McKenna Smith:  A lot of the fish that people eat in the Bay doesn’t come from the Bay. It comes from Hawaii, or far out enough in the Bay that it’s not affecting at least the higher-income people that live in San Francisco.

Tony Green: Wow, that’s interesting.

McKenna Smith:  The people that it affects usually is lower middle-income people, which is every single ecological problem affects lower and middle-income people. It’s lower middle-income people that fish directly out of the Bay, and either sell to the markets or use them for their family.

Tony Green: The material, the bio accumulates within the fish. There are reasons why that … Mercury has an affinity for fatty tissue or certain organs. What happens as you eat, instead of diluting normally, it congregates, and then you get to a certain concentration and you start to have issues.

Tony Green:  Once mercury is in your food, it’s in your food, right?

McKenna Smith:  Yeah.

Tony Green: Once it’s in your food, can you get it out? You can’t remove it, once it’s in.

McKenna Smith: No; no, because once it attaches to the fatty tissue, there is not a good way for your body to eliminate it.

Tony Green: Right, because it’s … I kind of looked at some stuff beforehand. I believe it’s the methylmercury, in terms of the form that it forms.

McKenna Smith: What happens is, there’s oxidized mercury, Hg2+ is the chemical equation for it, so oxidized mercury is at the bottom of the Bay, and that’s attached to the sediment and all that. That gets methylized through plankton and lower, like bottom feeders, so it methylizes through them, and then it rises up the food chain.

The bottom feeders add the methyl group to it, it’s CH3 and that’s the methyl group, and that gets methylized. Once it’s in the fish, it’s methylized, so it attaches to the fatty tissue. Your body really can’t process methylized mercury. It can process Hg2+ in small doses, but it can’t process methylized mercury.

Tony Green: Could the methylized mercury could be metabolized in the body, and therefore once you get it, it doesn’t … It won’t hurt you.

McKenna Smith:  I’m sure it’s a possibility. I haven’t really considered that. I haven’t considered any nanotechnology. My main concern is taking it out before it gets to the fish. Generational turnover, the fish will die, and the mercury will go back into the water. If we can get the original mercury out of the water first, then the generational turnover happens and the fish are clean.

The mercury at the bottom of the Bay, and in the marshes and all that, doesn’t just affect the fish. It affects the plants, and then it affects the birds that eat the plants, and then it affects the mountain lions that eat the birds. It runs throughout the food chain. Fish just happen to be a really easy way of quantifying it.

Tony Green: I see, so from your research, is most of the mercury man-made? Of course, there are natural forms, but what is kind of the rough split?

McKenna Smith: There’s always a balance. There’s always going to be mercury in the nature.

Tony Green: Yeah, and lead as well, and some of it occurs naturally.

McKenna Smith: Exactly, but anything, once it reaches the toxicity level, anything higher than that is always man-made. Nature will always do its best to balance between, so if there’s mercury in it, then nature and natural selection will come up with a way to remove it, or have the fish be able to tolerate it. Anything higher than a toxic level will always be man-made.

Tony Green:  Interesting.

McKenna Smith: Even climate change is technically natural, but because it’s become toxic, because it’s reached a higher level, that’s man-made, so it’s kind of the same thing.

Tony Green: I know mercury is in thermometers, and there’s other uses of mercury. If someone mines the mercury … I’ve never really thought about it. If someone mines the mercury they use the mercury.

McKenna Smith: Yeah.

Tony Green:  Wow, that’s interesting. It is HAZMAT, right?

McKenna Smith: Yes. Have you ever been to the Almaden Quicksilver mine?

Tony Green: I have been by there, I have heard of it, I have been down that way, but I’ve never actually … I don’t know if they give tours, but …

McKenna Smith: Yeah, it’s a historical landmark now.

Tony Green: Is it really?

McKenna Smith: Yeah, but also, even though they’ve stopped mining, mercury still runs through.

Tony Green: Yeah, because it’s like a mass balance, right? In other words, it’s something to get rid of the mass, then it’s not going to go anywhere.

McKenna Smith: Exactly.

Tony Green: It’s like pollution. You remove the pollution from something with it, or you can remove it from your area and put it someplace else.

McKenna Smith: To another area, yeah, which is also one of the reasons that it’s hard to dispose of it, because you’re just moving it from one area to another.

Tony Green: I guess from your research, what … In other words, if I were a concerned citizen and I was thinking, “Oh my God, this mercury thing may be a problem,” what should you look for in terms of …?

McKenna Smith: Your fish, so make sure that it’s not sourced locally. I know the big thing is locally sourced everything and all that, but anything that you buy in San Francisco, ask where it comes from. If it’s from the Bay, and it’s a fish like tuna or salmon or any of the larger fish higher on the food chain, albacore, mackerel, stuff like that, don’t buy it locally sourced. Especially if you’re pregnant, don’t eat any fish at all. There’s not a lot that you can do, except avoid it.

Tony Green: It’s interesting, because with water, for instance, like we test for lead and use that test, but there’s nothing like that you can say in your fish, unless say you could take a little bit of it and mix that in a test tube, “Oh, okay, yeah, we’ve got mercury levels in here.” That’s kind of interesting on the water side, in terms of testing, in terms of making sure your water is safe.

McKenna Smith: On the water side, you can test it easier, but on the fish side, it’s kind of harder. On the water side, you can usually separate the particles.

Tony Green: I’ve done that before. Typically, they have little reagents that react. It’s like cooking a little bit, this much, and you mix it up, and you have a little machine, and you push some buttons and it, “Okay.” It’s kind of … It’s cool. We’ve covered a lot here. You’re studying oceanography, right?

McKenna Smith: Yes.

Tony Green: I’d like to hear a little bit about your view on the oceans, and what the concerns are, what people really need to know about, seeing that the planet is like 70% ocean, right?

McKenna Smith: Every part of the ocean has its different problems. I focus a lot on the problems closer to home, so the Bay, and then the other one is the great garbage patch, which is the saddest thing I have ever seen.

Tony Green:  Yeah, I’ve discussed those in talks. It’s the Gyre, and it’s pretty … I kind of wish I could find a better way to express that. You have the slide, and you see the picture, and it doesn’t really … You have a little picture with a map and it doesn’t really have that like, “Oh my God” effect. Let’s just say, if I were to go on a trip or something, and I had a boat in the middle of the ocean, you could take a little video of the plastic … That would hit home with people saying, “Oh my God, what are we doing?”

The number from the … Globally, landfills, where the trash goes and you could say, “Okay.” I did a talk, actually it was a couple months ago, where we considered the plastic a little bit in detail and said, “Why doesn’t it decompose? What actually happens when it goes out in the ocean?”

McKenna Smith: It technically does decompose, but it decomposes into-

Tony Green: 100 years, to me is-

McKenna Smith:  Yeah.

Tony Green:  It breaks down into smaller bits of plastic. It doesn’t degrade, and so what happens is even worse, because when it gets small, then the birds will eat it, and that’s why they’re finding whales … “This whale starved to death, what happened?” They do the autopsy, and-

McKenna Smith: The plastic.

Tony Green: The plastic’s in the stomach. Plastic is kind of a big battleground.

McKenna Smith: I think that’s where I want my next project to be. Once I have something with this, and once I have the research and have all that going, I think I want plastic to be the next project.

Final Thoughts

After I spoke with McKenna I did some research where I learned people should not eat any of the fish that are caught in local Bay Area waters, especially in the East Bay, due to the concentrations of mercury and other metals that are part of the sub-aqueous mud as result of contamination dates to the Gold Rush era.

In a place which takes pride on being as sustainable as any place on earth, do you see the irony in the Bay Area residents not being able to consume the fish caught in its waters?