Date: July 19, 2016
Source: University of California - Davis
Tom Lehrer sang about poisoning them, but those pigeons in the park might be a good way to detect lead and other toxic compounds in cities. A new study of pigeons in New York City shows that levels of lead in the birds track with neighborhoods where children show high levels of lead exposure.
"Pigeons breathe the same air, walk the same sidewalks, and often eat the same food as we do. What if we could use them to monitor possible dangers to our health in the environment, like lead pollution?" said Rebecca Calisi, now an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior at the University of California, Davis, who conducted the study with undergraduate student Fayme Cai while at Barnard College, Columbia University. The work is published July 18 in the journal Chemosphere.
Decades after it was banned from paint and gasoline, lead pollution remains a significant concern. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene carries out routine screening of children in areas of the city identified as hot spots for lead contamination.
Calisi and Cai looked at blood samples collected from 825 sick or injured pigeons brought to the city's Wild Bird Fund rehabilitation center from 2010 to 2015. Each was identified by the zip code where it was found.
Lead levels rise in summer
They found that the pigeons' blood lead levels rose in summer, as they do in samples from children. Zip codes with high lead levels in pigeons also had some of the highest rates of raised levels of lead in children.