Despite decades of scientific research and policy actions to control mercury, exposure to toxic methylmercury continues to pose risks to humans and the environment. This article critically reviews the linkages between scientific advancements and mercury reduction policies aimed at reducing this risk, focusing on the challenges that mercury poses as an issue that crosses both spatial and temporal scales. Scientific aspects of the mercury issue at various spatial and temporal scales are reviewed, and policy examples at global, national and local scale are analysed. Policy activity to date has focused on the mercury problem at a single level of spatial scale, and on near-term timescales. Efforts at the local scale have focused on monitoring levels in fish and addressing local contamination issues; national-scale assessments have addressed emissions from particular sources; and global-scale reports have integrated long-range transport of emissions and commercial trade concerns. However, aspects of the mercury issue that cross the political scale (such as interactions between different forms of mercury) as well as contamination problems with long timescales are at present beyond the reach of current policies. It is argued that these unaddressed aspects of the mercury problem may be more effectively addressed by (1) expanded cross-scale policy coordination on mitigation actions and (2) better incorporating adaptation into policy decision-making to minimize impacts.