2003 CPEO Military List Archive

From: CPEO Moderator <cpeo@cpeo.org>
Date: 3 Jul 2003 18:03:57 -0000
Reply: cpeo-military
Subject: [CPEO-MEF] Lead poisoning still threatens albatross chicks on Midway Atoll
The following news release can be viewed online at:
Public release date: 2-Jul-2003
Contact: Michael Bernstein
American Chemical Society

Lead poisoning still threatens albatross chicks on Midway Atoll

The embattled birds of Midway Atoll are not quite in the clear. Despite
remediation efforts at this decommissioned military base in the remote
northern Pacific, Laysan albatross chicks are still being exposed to
lethal doses of lead.

A new study by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
has found that baby "gooney birds" are eating lead-based paint chips
from buildings around the island, which ironically has been designated a
National Wildlife Refuge. The results are representative of a larger
problem on old military bases around the world that are being turned
into wildlife habitats, the researchers say.

The findings are scheduled to appear in the August 1 edition of
Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the
American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

Midway Atoll, a sliver of islands 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii, was
the site of one of World War II's biggest naval battles  the Battle of
Midway, June 4-7, 1942  and was the location of a U.S. Naval Air
Facility until it was closed in the mid 1990s. The decommissioned
military base, which was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1988,
is home to the world's largest breeding population of Laysan
albatrosses, or "gooney birds," so-named for their awkward crash

A 1994 study showed that 85 percent of the buildings on Midway contained
lead-based paint. Scientists have named lead poisoning as one of the
leading causes of mortality in chicks on Midway in recent years, and
there have been many reports of peripheral neuropathy, or "droopwing."
"Peripheral neuropathy is a classic symptom of very high lead exposure
in many species, including humans," says Myra Finkelstein, a Ph.D.
candidate in environmental toxicology at U.C. Santa Cruz and lead author
of the paper.

Between 1994-1997, the Navy spent millions of dollars cleaning up the
island, scraping lead-based paint from buildings and repainting with
oil-based paint. But the new study suggests the lead problem still

"All of the droopwing chicks I sampled had severe lead poisoning,"
Finkelstein says. "We determined that Laysan albatross chicks continue
to be exposed to lethal levels of lead from the ingestion of lead-based
paint from multiple buildings on the island."

Scientists disagree about the source of lead in the blood of albatross
chicks, as well as the route of exposure. Some propose that birds ingest
lead indirectly by exposure to contaminated soil, which is an important
pathway for lead-poisoned children in the United States. Other
researchers have found birds with a type of droopwing that was
attributable to malnutrition, not lead poisoning.

But the chicks that Finkelstein and her colleagues studied were poisoned
by picking at paint directly from buildings or by eating paint chips
that had fallen in and around their nests, the researchers report.

To determine the route of exposure, they used lead isotopic analysis, a
technique that measures isotopes, or chemical markers, within various
samples to trace their specific origin.

The lead isotopes in the chicks' blood matched the isotopes in lead
taken from paint on the buildings, verifying the source of the lead.
There was disagreement, however, between the blood isotopes and isotopes
from soil surrounding the nests, ruling out soil-contamination as a
route of exposure.

The researchers identified a total of 26 droopwing chicks around three
buildings with deteriorated lead-based paint. Given that there are more
than 200 buildings on Midway that potentially have lead contamination,
the number of poisoned birds could be substantial. People on the island
could also be at risk of lead poisoning, Finkelstein says  especially
children, because of their hand-to-mouth behavior.

"The Laysan albatross is currently not listed as threatened,"
Finkelstein says. However, "The last population estimate of breeding
Laysan albatrosses from the Fish and Wildlife Service showed
approximately a 30 percent decline in the northwest Hawaiian Islands
between the years of 1992-2001."

Many U.S. military bases around the world are being decommissioned and
turned into wildlife refuges, so the problem could be more widespread
than thought. "Any base painted before the 1970s most likely has
lead-based paint," Finkelstein says. She is aware of at least two such
bases: Johnston Atoll and French Frigate Shoals, another island in the
Hawaiian Archipelago.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the University of California
Toxic Substance and Research Program, and the Switzer Environmental
Fellowship Program funded this research.

 Jason Gorss

(EDITOR'S NOTE  Photographs of droopwing albatross chicks are available
upon request.)
The online version of the research paper cited above was initially
published June 21 on the journal's Web site. Journalists can arrange
access to this site by sending an e-mail to newsroom@acs.org or calling
the contact person for this release.

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