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Great Lakes Article:

Sick ducks point to lake toxin

09/17/2002
A drastic decline in the North American population of a duck species could be due to a chemical contaminant in the Great Lakes the birds are ingesting in unexpectedly high amounts, new research suggests.

While focused on levels of selenium in the lesser and greater scaup, the findings also raise wider concerns.

"(Selenium poisoning) could be affecting quite a number of species ... including some fish species," said Scott Petrie, research director for the Long Point Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Fund. Selenium, an essential trace nutrient, is released to water from both natural and industrial sources. It can be highly toxic, crippling reproductive ability. "It's quite alarming that you've got this semi-metallic trace element showing up in such high levels in certain bird species," said Petrie.

Scaup populations across the continent have dropped by as much as 50 per cent since the mid-1980s, and suspicion has now fallen on the entry of zebra mussels into their diet, likely imported into the Great Lakes in 1986 via a foreign ship, dumping water ballast.

Because they are "filter" feeders, the mussels ingest and retain toxins in the water, such as PCBs, which are then passed on to waterfowl. Petrie said further research is needed to confirm mussels are contaminated with selenium, and in turn poisoning scaup.

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