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Presence of persistent organic pollutants in a breeding common tern (Sterna hirundo) population in Ireland


Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemical compounds of environmental concern due to their toxic, persistent nature and their ability to bio-accumulate in biological tissue. Seabirds, for often being at the top of the food web, have been used as monitors of environmental pollutants. Adverse effects caused by POPs have been reported in common terns (Sterna hirundo) since the 1970s. Egg shell thinning, embryo and hatchling deformities have been reported for this species. Environmental legislation, such as the Oslo-Paris Convention (OSPAR), has agreed on the monitoring of concentration of POPs in common terns. This study set out to investigate contemporary concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), organochlorine pesticides (OCPs) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in common terns breeding in Ireland, along with congener profiles. Investigation was conducted in live (n = 15) and dead birds (n = 20) to test for the efficiency of different methodologies using preen oil and feathers versus liver and preen gland. Mean concentrations of POPs followed the order: PCB (36.48 ng/g ww feather) > PAH (30.01 ng/g ww feather) > OCP (13.36 ng/g ww feather) > BFR (1.98 ng/g ww feather) in live birds; and PAH (46.65 ng/g ww preen gland) > PCB (44.11 ng/g ww preen gland) > OCP (15.15 ng/g ww liver) > BFR (5.07 ng/g ww liver) in dead birds. Comparison of contaminant results with toxicity pre-established levels concluded that this population of common terns in Ireland is not at risk of anomalies caused by POPs. However, some levels are higher in comparison to the ones established by OSPAR’s EcoQO and must be monitored periodically.

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This work was supported by Science Without Borders (CAPES, Brazil, BEX: 1269-13-5). Many thanks to all at BirdWatch Ireland. Thanks to Steve Newton. Special thanks to Rockabill wardens Brian Burke and Andrew Power. Thanks to Niall Keogh for assistance in the field. Thanks to Danilo Hirota, Killian Coakley and Bill Delee for assistance in the lab. Thanks to anonymous reviewers for improving the quality of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heidi Acampora.

Additional information


• First detected levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in common terns (Sterna hirundo) in Ireland.

• PCBs, PAHs, OCPs and BFRs were detected in feathers and preen oil of live birds (n = 15).

• PCBs, PAHs, OCPs and BFRs were detected in liver and preen gland of dead birds (n = 20).

• Comparisons were made with levels of toxicological importance and EcoQO monitoring values.

Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

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Acampora, H., White, P., Lyashevska, O. et al. Presence of persistent organic pollutants in a breeding common tern (Sterna hirundo) population in Ireland. Environ Sci Pollut Res 24, 13025–13035 (2017).

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  • Common tern
  • Sterna hirundo
  • Persistent organic pollutants
  • PCB
  • PAH
  • OCP
  • BFR