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  Lead isotope ratio measurements in microcosms and avian samples as indicators for the source of lead poisoning in wildfowl

   Faculty of Health, Science, Social Care and Education

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  Prof James Barker, Dr Steve Barton  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Lead (Pb) poisoning is commonly linked amongst anthropogenically-caused deaths in waterfowl and this is often associated with hunting and fishing activities. However, the exact identification of the source may be difficult with commonly-used techniques. Additionally, no appropriate, comprehensive evaluation of this issue has so far been carried out linked in water and sediment. This project aims to study isotope ratios using Inductively-Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) to investigate the source of Pb in the blood of wildfowl wintering in northern Poland and elsewhere in Europe. Our study aims to compare the ratio values from blood and ammunition pellets available on the Polish market. These pellets will also be immersed in vitro in microcosms with different sediment, water pH values and wind levels to ascertain if Pb transfer from spent gunshot to the environment occurs only in specific environmental conditions.

Bird lead (Pb) poisoning is an important environmental concern since the late 1800’s. The spent hunting Pb pellets and fishing sinkers lying on the foraging area of birds may be mistaken by them and ingested as gastroliths. After the ingestion, with the help of the grinding mechanisms of the gizzard and in its acidic environment, Pb particles dissolve easily and get into the bloodstream causing poisoning. This phenomenon has been a significant source of mortality for many years among various species of swans in different parts of the world. It was estimated globally that until the middle of 1990s, 10,000 swans from 14 different countries died as a result of Pb poisoning caused by ammunition pellets deposited in wetland habitats.

The verification of the source of Pb poisoning is difficult. Apart from ammunition and fishing sinkers, other sources of Pb exposure are from air, water and soil deposition of Pb-based paints, large-scale mining and Pb smelting activities. In order to verify the connection of poisoned waterfowl to hunting and fishing activities, a post-mortem evaluation using X-ray analysis is needed and this may not be always possible to undertake, especially for in vivo studies, with measurements possibly occurring a long time after the ingestion (Binkowski and Sawicka-Kapusta, 2015. An establishment of Pb isotope ratios in bird tissues or feathers may be a practicable solution to the above-mentioned restrictions.

Due to the fact that three (206, 207, 208) of the four Pb isotopes come from radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, their abundance ratios may vary in different deposits. As a result of this, the isotopes and their ratios (between themselves, including the 204 isotope) may be applied to the recognition of the Pb ore which was used to produce the material. Knowing these isotopic ratios in various materials, it is possible to compare them with values found in biological samples to recognize the possible pollutant connection.

Most of the previously published papers concerning Pb isotopes in birds studied bones as the tissue of the final deposition where the metal reaches the highest concentrations. However, Pb in bones accumulates for the animals’ whole life, so its burden reflects the lifelong exposure of the bird to numerous sources. Taking into account the fact that many scientists have reported that isotopic ratios overlap in lots of materials, bone seems not to be the best choice for this analysis. Tissues with faster Pb turnover should be more appropriate. The one which shows recent exposure (including within a couple of previous weeks) is blood, already used in waterfowl biomonitoring studies, including cases of Pb poisoning (Binkowski and Meissner, 2013).

The aim of this research was to identify Pb concentrations in wildfowl wintering in Puck Bay, one of the most important sites for non-breeding concentrations in the Baltic. To find if the source were lead pellets from ammunition, we will compare the Pb isotopic ratios (204/206, 206/207, 208/206, 208/207) found in blood with values noted for pellets from ammunition available on the Polish market. Finally, we will try to answer the question if the method of isotope ratio measurement in bird blood may be useful in the regular monitoring of Pb poisoning.

Biological Sciences (4) Chemistry (6) Environmental Sciences (13) Medicine (26) Nursing & Health (27)

Funding Notes

There is no funding for this project: applications can only be accepted from self-funded candidates


Binkowski, Ł.J., Meissner, W., 2013. Levels of metals in blood samples from Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) from urban areas in Poland. Environmental Pollution 178, 336-342.

Binkowski, Ł.J., Sawicka-Kapusta, K., 2015. Lead poisoning and its in vivo biomarkers in Mallard and Coot from hunting activity areas. Chemosphere 127, 101-108.

Binkowski, Łukasz J., Meissner, Włodzimierz, Trzeciak, Marta, Izevbekhai, Kelvin and Barker, James, Lead isotope ratios as indicators for the source of lead poisoning in Mute swans (“Cygnus olor”) wintering in Puck Bay (northern Poland), Chemosphere, 164, pp.436-442, (2016)
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