Pesticide residues in birds and mammals

Edited by:
C.A. Edwards


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SUMMARY: Residues of organochlorine pesticides and their breakdown products are present in the tissues of essentially all wild birds throughout the world. These chemicals accumulate in fat from a relatively small environmental exposure. DDE and dieldrin are most prevalent. Others, such as heptachlor epoxide, chlordane, endrin, and benzene hexachloride also occur, the quantities and kinds generally reflecting local or regional use. Accumulation may be sufficient to kill animals following applications for pest control. This has occurred in several large-scale programmes in the United States. Mortality has also resulted from unintentional leakage of chemical from commercial establishments. Residues may persist in the environment for many years, exposing successive generations of animals. In general, birds that eat other birds, or fish, have higher residues than those that eat seeds and vegetation. The kinetic processes of absorption, metabolism, storage, and output differ according to both kind of chemical and species of animal. When exposure is low and continuous, a balance between intake and excretion may be achieved. Residues reach a balance at an approximate animal body equilibrium or plateau; the storage is generally proportional to dose. Experiments with chickens show that dieldrin and heptachlor epoxide have the greatest propensity for storage, endrin next, then DDT, then lindane. The storage of DDT was complicated by its metabolism to DDE and DDD, but other studies show that DDE has a much greater propensity for storage than either DDD or DDT. Methoxychlor has little cumulative capacity in birds. Residues in eggs reflect and parallel those in the parent bird during accumulation, equilibrium, and decline when dosage is discontinued. Residues with the greatest propensity for storage are also lost most slowly. Rate of loss of residues can be modified by dietary components and is speeded by weight loss of the animal. Under sublethal conditions of continuous exposure to an organochlorine pesticide, the concentrations of residues in the different tissues are ordinarily directly correlated with each other. When the dosage is at lethal levels, or when stored residues are mobilised to lethal levels, the balanced relationship is disrupted. The concentrations of residues in the brain provide the most rigorous criteria for diagnosis of death due to these chemicals, and levels are generally similar across a wide range of species of birds and mammals. Residues in liver are closely correlated with recent dose, either from direct intake or from mobilisation from storage, and so reflect hazardous exposure. Residues in the whole carcass show the storage reserve, and so indicate the potential for adverse effects from lethal mobilisation or from the continuous slow mobilisation that occurs during the normal processes of metabolism and excretion. A synchronous, rapid, and widespread decline in weight and thickness of shells of eggs laid by many species of wild birds occurred in the late 1940's and has persisted. Birds of prey were primarily affected; exceptions apparently are the result of lesser exposure because of different food habits. Many species of fish-eating birds are also affected. Others, however, appear to be more resistant and to accumulate much higher residues before shell-thinning occurs. Seed-eating birds do not appear to have been generally affected; their exposure is ordinarily lower, but physiological factors also seem to be involved. A relationship between shell-thinning and population decline has been established for many species. In exceptional cases, such as the herring gull, persistent re-nesting and other population reactions have overcome adverse effects at the population level. The discovery of shell-thinning among natural populations, and the hypothesis that this thinning was related to the occurrence of organochlorine pesticides, stimulated experimental studies to determine wheth

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Book chapter
Publication Subtype:
Book Chapter
Pesticide residues in birds and mammals
Year Published:
Plenum Press
Publisher location:
London and New York
Contributing office(s):
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
x, 542
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Other Government Series
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