National Wildlife Health Center

...advancing wildlife and ecosystem health

Lead Poisoning

Question Amakihi

What is it?

Lead is a heavy metal used in a wide variety of industries. Lead used to be a component of house paints, and indeed, many older houses in Hawaii have lead paint. On Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (a decommissioned military base), many old buildings have peeling lead paint. Laysan albatross can be found nesting around many buildings on Midway, and albatross chicks get lead poisoning by ingesting paint chips around the buildings.

What does it do?

Lead interferes with a variety of enzymes and metabolic functions and, in sufficient quantities, can cause damage to the nervous system.

What does it affect?

On Midway Atoll NWR, Laysan albatross have classically been the most likely animal to be affected by lead poisoning. This is because they mostly nest on the center of the island where most of the buildings occur. The blackfoot albatross is another common species on Midway, however, lead poisoning is far less common for the blackfoot because they mostly nest on the periphery of the island where buildings are less numerous.

What are the field signs?

Because lead affects the nervous system, common clinical signs in birds include weakness, inability to hold up the wings, inability to walk, or death. Because poisoning often occurs over a long period of time, many birds can also be emaciated.

Where and when does it occur?

In Hawaii, lead has only been a major problem on Midway Atoll NWR. This is because there was the unique juxtaposition of susceptible birds (albatross chicks) next to old buildings that were shedding lead paint.

How do you detect it?

In order to incriminate lead poisoning as a cause of death, organs must be analyzed in the laboratory for presence of the metal. Typical samples used to do this include frozen kidney or liver. Blood from live birds can also be analyzed.

How do you manage it?

Since the transfer of Midway to the US Fish and Widlife Service and the removal of many old buildings from the refuge, lead poisoning in albatross has been much less of a problem. However, occasional cases still occur, and ongoing efforts are concentrated in preventing birds from nesting next to buildings thereby decreasing the chance of exposure.

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Page Last Modified: Jun 20, 2018