Toxicity of Lead-Contaminated Sediment to Mute Swans

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Abstract

Most ecotoxicological risk assessments of wildlife emphasize contaminant exposure through ingestion of food and water. However, the role of incidental ingestion of sediment-bound contaminants has not been adequately appreciated in these assessments. This study evaluates the toxicological consequences of contamination of sediments with metals from hard-rock mining and smelting activities. Lead-contaminated sediments collected from the Coeur d'Alene River Basin in Idaho were combined with either a commercial avian maintenance diet or ground rice and fed to captive mute swans (Cygnus olor) for 6 weeks. Experimental treatments consisted of maintenance or rice diets containing 0, 12 (no rice group), or 24% highly contaminated (3,950 μg/g lead) sediment or 24% reference (9.7 μg/g lead) sediment. Although none of the swans died, the group fed a rice diet containing 24% lead-contaminated sediment were the most severely affected, experiencing a 24% decrease in mean body weight, including three birds that became emaciated. All birds in this treatment group had nephrosis; abnormally dark, viscous bile; and significant (p ≤ 0.05) reductions in hematocrit and hemoglobin concentrations compared to their pretreatment levels. This group also had the greatest mean concentrations of lead in blood (3.2 μg/g), brain (2.2 μg/g), and liver (8.5 μg/g). These birds had significant (α = 0.05) increases in mean plasma alanine aminotransferase activity, cholesterol, and uric acid concentrations and decreased plasma triglyceride concentrations compared to all other treatment groups. After 14 days of exposure, mean protoporphyrin concentrations increased substantially, and mean δ-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase activity decreased by more than 95% in all groups fed diets containing highly contaminated sediments. All swans fed diets that contained 24% lead-contaminated sediment had renal acid-fast intranuclear inclusion bodies, which are diagnostic of lead poisoning in waterfowl. Body weight and hematocrit and hemoglobin concentrations in swans on control (no sediment) and reference (uncontaminated) sediment diets remained unchanged. These data provide evidence that mute swans consuming environmentally relevant concentrations of Coeur d'Alene River Basin sediment developed severe sublethal lead poisoning. Furthermore, toxic effects were more pronounced when the birds were fed lead-contaminated sediment combined with rice, which closely resembles the diet of swans in the wild.

Received: 12 July 2001/Accepted: 11 October 2002