The Bald Eagle has been an icon of the United States; a symbol of pride, power, and triumph. However, the indiscriminate use of the dangerous toxin DTT, a highly polluting pesticide, drove this majesty of American symbolism to the verge of extinction. Major conservation efforts over the past couple of decades or so have helped to increase the bald eagle population; however, they are still a vulnerable species and are often monitored very carefully. The most recent study on bald eagles in New York’s Catskills have raised concern over not only the eagles themselves, but over the implications for the areas ecosystem and human health as well.
In a recent study conducted by the BioDiversity Research Institute researchers found rising levels of mercury contamination in bald eagle chics and feathers. With levels at around 0.64 parts per million, this is approaching a dangerous level for the reproductive health of the eagles which are still in a fragile state in many parts of the country.
Implications for Human Health:
Birds have long been used as detection systems of environmental problems. Miners of old would capture canaries and place them in the mines to determine safety; if the canary died they knew that the mine was not safe for workers and would avoid or evacuate the area. While, luckily, this method has been out dated, the principle is still the same. When we see birds such as the bald eagle showing signs of rising contamination it is a clear warning that the health of the ecosystem is in jeopardy. And likewise, what will effect the bald eagle is likely to effect human health as well.
This link is even more pertinent in the Catskills area and is raising more concern because that particular area of New York state houses several of the state’s larger reservoirs that feed New York City’s water supply. The levels of mercury in the local fish, which the eagles eat and hence become contaminated as well, are already so high that warnings are in place to alert residence of the limited number of local fish that can be consumed safely. The fish become contaminated via the mercury pollution in the water. As this spreads there is a concern over the safety of the water supply. Since mercury contamination in humans can cause a number of health problems and even lead to death, this has many worried about the issue.
Sources of Mercury Pollution:
While the air, water, and soil can become polluted with mercury from a variety of sources and products ranging from old thermometers
to flu shots, the largest contributor to the mercury problem by far is the burning of coal. Whether used in power plants or burned by other industrial sites, the burning of coal is a major source of air pollution and is also filling not only our air, but our rivers, lakes, oceans, and soil with deadly mercury as well. This means that even communities that are not near the coal burning location can still be effected and suffer from the mercury poisoning caused by the pollution. The problems with the bald eagle in the Catskills, for example, comes mostly from the industrial areas of the midwest.
Given the potential problem, this early warning sign calls for action not only by those interested in protecting the bald eagle populations but also for our own protection.