Lead Poisoning of Waterfowl by Contaminated Sediment in the Coeur d'Alene River

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The Coeur d'Alene River basin in Idaho has been contaminated by mine tailings that have impaired the health of wildlife since the early 1900s. In other parts of the world, virtually all lead poisoning of waterfowl is caused by the ingestion of manmade lead artifacts, primarily spent lead shotshell pellets or, occasionally, fishing sinkers. However, in the Coeur d'Alene River basin in Idaho, nonartifactual lead poisoning was the ultimate cause of death of most of 219 (77%) of 285 waterfowl carcasses that had been found sick or dead from 1992 through 1997. The majority of these 219 waterfowl (172 tundra swans [Cygnus columbianus], 33 Canada geese [Branta canadensis], and 14 other species) were poisoned by ingesting river sediment that was contaminated with lead. The next most common cause of death (20 instances, 7%) was lead poisoning accompanied by ingested shotshell pellets. The remaining 46 waterfowl succumbed to trauma, infectious diseases (aspergillosis, avian cholera, tuberculosis), or miscellaneous problems, or the cause of death was not determined.