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Long-lasting pollutants harming some Great Lakes shorebirds

Common tern holding a fish
Phylis Cooper

Research shows chemicals banned years and even decades ago are showing up in some Great Lakes shorebirds. Scientists found P-C-Bs used as a coolant in electrical transformers, fire retardants called P-B-D-Es and derivatives of the insecticide D-D-T in terns. The pollutants were at levels high enough to potentially harm the health of the birds. 

“It could cause deformities. It could also cause the eggs not to hatch. In general, these chemicals affect development of brains,” said Diana Aga, Chemistry Professor in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.

It’s not clear what the combination of all three chemicals might be doing.

“The effects of them could actually be synergistic, meaning it's not just additive. Like one plus one equals two. It could actually mean one plus one equals 20,” Aga said.

The highest concentrations were in chicks. Aga says that’s because the chemical burden is being passed down from the chicks’ mothers.

“The mothers tend to accumulate all these chemicals in their fatty tissues. But then when they have eggs, a lot of this fat gets concentrated in the eggs,” she explained.

The birds studied were found at Lake Erie and the Niagara River. But the researchers say it’s highly likely other migrating shorebirds throughout the Great Lakes are also polluted by the trio of chemicals.

The study was published online in the journal Environment International and will appear in its November issue. You can find more about the study and the researchers here.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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