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December 13, 2016 – You don’t have to look very hard to find a story about environmental neglect and human health. The backstory to these reports is that caring for the environment and creating a healthier world will not only help us, but the cherished animals with whom we share the planet.

Three independent Morris Animal Foundation-funded studies looked at how lead accumulation in the environment affects local birds. While lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal, it often is concentrated and dispersed through human activity, most notably leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, and lead solder in food cans and pipes. For wildlife, lead shot and sinkers, although strictly eliminated or regulated in some parts of the world, are of particular concern.

Animals experience the same kind of effects as people who are exposed to lead. Lead causes damage to the kidneys, liver, brain and nerves, and other organs. Excessive lead exposure causes seizures, behavioral disorders, and cognitive problems. Lead exposure also may lead to anemia.

Morris Animal Foundation-funded researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society recently documented high levels of lead from spent shot that had accumulated in heavily hunted Argentinian wetlands. Lead contamination also threatened the health of other species that ingest lead found in the food chain.

These documented health effects prompted the Argentinian government to implement corrective policies, including limitations on hunting quotas and lead banning. Lead shot bans in three major hunting Argentinian provinces now is contributing to saving the life of countless wild species as well as improving the lives of community members.

Closer to home, researchers from the University of California, Davis, studied the effects of lead ammunition in condor habitats. Although lead ammunition has been regulated in the region since 2008, 62 percent of recently captured condors were documented to have elevated lead levels. The burden of lead exposure is variable by location in California and the researchers documented clusters of increased lead exposure in the population during the past few years.

Outcomes of the study resulted in increased monitoring and standardized protocols for assessing lead exposure and other disease risks for the condors. The work also increased awareness in wildlife managers and policy makers of the impacts of lead on California condors and other scavenging wildlife in California.

“It is a privilege to know as a scientist that your work is directly affecting and informing management and policy,” said Dr. Terra Kelly, an epidemiologist with the Wildlife Health Center/One Health Institute at UC Davis.

In New Orleans, Dr. Jordan Karubian and collaborators at Tulane University studied the effect of lead in the environment on mockingbirds. The team found that birds residing in neighborhoods heavily contaminated by lead show elevated levels of lead in their blood and feathers. The team also found that higher lead exposure was linked to increased aggressive behavior in the birds.

A key aspect of this study was Dr. Karubian’s engagement with the community as “citizen researchers,” which helped increase awareness in the community of the problem.

“We developed a website and phone app devoted to the citizen science component of the project,” said Dr. Karubian. “We built a database of potential citizen scientists, now counting approximately 50 interested local residents.”

Results from these three studies are raising awareness about public and wildlife issues associated with lead contamination. Thank you to all of our donors who are helping animals have longer, healthier lives!