College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Chemistry Professor Tracks Mercury with State-of-the-Art Instruments Unique to Region

James Cizdziel, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in six American women has enough mercury in her body to put her child at risk should she become pregnant. That means detecting and reducing mercury emissions is important to public health.

Mercury is a toxic pollutant that is known to bio-concentrate up the food chain where it can lead to poisoning in both humans and wildlife.  Emissions, especially from coal-fired power plants, are leading to a general increase in mercury on local, regional and global scales.  James Cizdziel, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi, is involved in cutting edge scientific research designed to measure mercury emissions and determine their origins.

“The kind of work Cizdziel does is critical to society because we all want to know the distribution and levels of toxic pollutants in the environment,” said Charles L. Hussey, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “His work is focused on looking at heavy metals, including mercury, and their distribution in the ecosystem. In order to do that, he has to develop special methodology based around some of the most powerful analytical instruments that we now have. Most of his work is done with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.”

Cizdziel moved to UM in 2008 from the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Las Vegas. Hussey said since coming to UM, Cizdziel has been extraordinarily successful in attracting external funds including EPA grants and the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Award.

“We are very delighted he is here,” Hussey said. “He is doing very well. He has already established a large research group, and I feel like he is and will continue to be an asset to this state and its citizens.”

Cizdziel is an analytical chemist whose work measuring different pollutants in the environment tends to be interdisciplinary in nature.  And, his active research program helps train the next generation of scientists.  For example, one group of students worked on heavy metal contaminants in the BP oil spill.

“I’m continuing to do primarily environmentally related research and I’m establishing collaborations with others on campus and in the region to utilize our new capabilities,” Cizdziel said. “I convinced the National Science Foundation that we could develop a first-rate trace element research center for the Mid South region if we could acquire a high resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer. This state-of-the art instrument housed in Coulter Hall is the only one of its type in our region. I have a graduate student helping me analyze a wide-variety of samples for researchers and industrial clients who don’t have such equipment.”

There is also equipment on the top of Anderson Hall that monitors mercury species in the air.

“Mercury is a special element in that it can reach levels that are toxic to humans if too much contaminated fish is consumed,” Cizdziel said. “It is responsible for the most fish advisories in the nation. Mercury gets put in the air and disburses globally. There are subtle differences in isotope ratios from one deposit of coal than another. The technology now can measure these isotopic signatures. It is kind of like fingerprints for mercury stemming from different sources. Once you have those fingerprints, you can follow the mercury.”