Lead-based paint is poisoning albatross chicks at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

SANTA CRUZ, CA--Lead-based paint from deteriorating buildings still poses a hazard to wildlife on Midway Atoll, despite extensive environmental remediation efforts undertaken as part of the conversion of the site from a military base to a national wildlife refuge. A new study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows that Laysan albatross chicks in nests near the buildings are suffering lead poisoning as a direct result of eating paint chips from the soil in and around their nests.

Previous reports had documented lead poisoning in albatross chicks nesting near buildings on Midway, but the exact source of the lead remained unclear. The UCSC researchers used lead isotope ratios as a tracer to identify the source of the lead in the blood of affected chicks.

"We were able to pinpoint the cause of the lead poisoning. The chicks are eating paint chips directly--it's not from contaminated soil--and knowing that can help guide remediation efforts," said Myra Finkelstein, a graduate student in environmental toxicology and ocean sciences at UCSC.

Finkelstein conducted the study with Donald Smith, professor of environmental toxicology, and Roberto Gwiazda, a research toxicologist. Their findings will appear in the August issue of Environmental Science & Technology and have already been published on the journal's web site.

The lead levels in some albatross chicks on Midway are so high that the toxic metal damages their peripheral nervous systems, leading to a symptom known as "droopwing"--the chicks are unable to hold their wings tucked up against their bodies, and their wings often drag on the ground. It is a classic symptom of lead poisoning, comparable to the "wrist drop" symptom in humans, said Smith.

"If you found this level of lead in a child, the child would be hospitalized immediately," he said.

But Smith noted that the levels of lead in paint samples from Midway are not unusual considering the a

Contact: Tim Stephens
University of California - Santa Cruz

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