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Concern over Chernobyl-tainted birds.

Concern over Chernobyl-tainted birds

After the meltdown and the fallout, the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident continue to ripple outward. A meeting between European and U.S. scientists at an ornithological convention last month has raised concerns that migratory birds may be carrying radiation throughout Europe. And the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has requested that the United States become "more actively involved" in determining Chernobyl's effects on birds.

According to I. Lehr Brisbin Jr. of the University of Georgia at Athens, who led the roundtable discussion at the Nineteenth International Ornithological Congress in Ottawa, Chernobyl sits in a major migratory flyway. "The birds funnel north from Africa...and come up through the Ukraine," he says. The accident occurred during the northward spring migration.

Monitoring of radiation levels since the April 28 disaster has concentrated on immediate dangers to human health, such as those posed by livestock due to be slaughtered for food. But wildlife may be more heavily contaminated than livestock, which have been given relatively "clean" feed, says brisbin -- and because many Europeans hunt, and eat what they catch, the contamination may threaten more than long-term ecological stability. In addition, he says, "many Third World countries depend on fish and wild game for food."

Scientists at the meeting pointed out that radiation has been measured in wild reindeer, according to Douglas Inkley of the Washington, D.C.-based NWF, and the government of Sweden has reportedly recommended that citizens limit their consumption of wild game. But migratory birds would be a more efficient vector for radioactive isotopes, Inkley says. Italy, "downstream" from the Ukraine during the fall migration, is considering a ban on bird hunting this year; more than 20 million birds are hunted and eaten each year in that country.

Prompted by concerns raised at the ornithological convention, the NWF in June asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the problem, citing a 1978 U.S./USSR convention to protect migratory birds and their habitats. The letter was forwarded to the Department of Interior, an EPA spokesperson told SCIENCE NEWS, adding, "we agree that something ought to be done."

At this point, nobody knows whether there is a serious problem, according to Brisbin. "What we need are good [bird] population studies," he says. "It may be smoke and no fire. [But] it would be a shame to spend all the time and energy we're spending on [monitoring] livestock and vegetables, and ignore an important source of [potential] contamination."
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Author:Davis, Lisa
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 26, 1986
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