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Avian Pathol. 2003 Feb;32(1):3-13.

Lead and lead toxicity in domestic and free living birds.

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Department of Celular Biology, Physiology and Inmunology, University of Córdoba, Spain.


At present, domestic and wild fauna are being exposed to aspects and factors which are foreign to the habitat in which they live. One that stands out is the enormous amount and variety of chemical compounds which, in many cases, are highly complex and which are constantly being released into the atmosphere, mainly from agricultural and industrial activity. All these substances affect some species more than others, whether they be plants or animals, from the most insignificant micro-organism to the most evolved species, among them birds. Finally, another cause of mortality in many birds is plumbism, namely death caused by the ingestion of lead. Lead has been one of the main causes of poisoning in man since ancient times due to its use in many activities although it is only recently that this toxicity has been recognized. Moreover, the use of lead pellets for shooting has resulted in the release into the environment of millions of these over many years, with serious repercussions for many bird species populations, which have ingested them either directly or indirectly. Added to this use of lead in cynegetic activities is the fate of the lead weights (sinkers or ballast) used by rod fishers, which sink to the bottom or accumulate on the banks of rivers, lakes, lagoons or reservoirs. The problem arises when these pellets or weights are ingested by birds, mainly Anatidae, which mistake them for the small stones or grit they use to triturate food in their gizzards. Small particles of lead enter the digestive tract, start dissolving in the form of lead salts, are incorporated into the bloodstream and the rest of the body, accumulate in organs like the liver or kidneys, and cause physiological or behavioural changes. When certain concentrations of lead are reached, the birds then die. If lead-poisoned birds are consumed by carrions or predators, the latter also ingest the lead so that they may also be affected or die from plumbism since, being a heavy metal, its degradation and/or elimination is very difficult. There is, therefore, no doubt that millions of birds die annually worldwide from lead poisoning (in the U.S.A., around 3,000,000), this problem being most acute in marshland. The solutions could include the introduction of legislation regulating or banning shooting, in the use of non-toxic ammunition in marshes and protected areas, the substitution of lead pellets for other non-toxic ones, such as steel, bismuth, tungsten or other suitable metals, and to go on studying other possible alternatives to end such a dramatic situation for birds all over the world.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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