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Jenny Cohen

Last modified: Monday, April 3, 2006

Studies find heart deformities, higher mortality rates in PCB-affected wildlife

April 3, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Recent studies of wildlife in the Bloomington area have found serious health problems with embryonic development in animals exposed to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) released from local PCB-contaminated sites. These problems include heart deformities in birds and reproductive problems in fish. The studies were conducted by researchers in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and other institutions.

The study of birds in the area included 283 nestling passerine birds from PCB-contaminated sites around Bloomington and Bedford, in rural Indiana. The hearts of the birds showed a variety of deformities that could affect heart function including thin ventricle walls, microsurface roughness and changes in the overall shape of the heart.

"At the higher concentrations of PCBs, we see some pretty dramatic effects, with more than 30 percent of the population of birds having serious or obvious heart deformities," said SPEA environmental toxicologist Diane Henshel, who worked on the study.

In laboratory studies done by the group, one of the first organs in birds that seemed to be affected almost immediately by PCB contamination was the heart. The study could lead to more work trying to find a connection between bird deformities and those that could occur in humans, particularly to fetuses as they develop.

"It's a scary thing to realize that this is showing up in birds at low concentrations and birds aren't that much more sensitive than humans when it comes to the effects of PCBs," Henshel said. "Everyone, every animal on Earth is now considered contaminated from birth, and continues to accumulate PCBs and related bioaccumulative chemicals throughout their lives. Therefore, the implications are that this phenomenon could be very well contributing to the unexplained incidence of heart deformities that we see in infants."

Henshel was also involved in studies of local fish populations in PCB-contaminated sites including landfills and near the Lemon Lane water treatment plant in Bloomington. The study found the mortality rates of fish were being dramatically affected in more highly PCB-contaminated areas.

"We're losing full age classes of fishes, and that is dramatic. They are dying off a year to two years earlier than expected," Henshel said.

The study found that female fish tend to die out sooner than males, probably due to the stress of trying to lay eggs, which in some cases did not even occur depending on the level of PCBs in the stream.

"At our high-dose sites, females form mature eggs but they are unable to lay them," Henshel said. "The eggs start to die in the females' bodies late in the summer, long after the eggs were supposed to have been released. We're losing not just the older fish classes, but also the very young fish at these sites. The fish that are there presumably migrate in from the lower-contaminated areas of the streams."

Fish collection for these studies took place before the completion of the Lemon Lane Water Treatment Plant. The plant now collects and removes 80 percent of the PCBs from water it treats. One of the other local PCB-contaminated sites, Neal's Landfill, however, still does not have sufficient treatment for the contaminated water emerging from the site.

The study on the organ deformities in birds was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Environmental Contaminants Program and the Department of the Interior's Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program. A report of the study appeared in February's Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

The fish study also was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Environmental Contaminants Program and the Department of the Interior's Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program. It appeared in January's Journal of Fish Biology.

The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, located on eight campuses, is committed to teaching, research and service in areas such as public and nonprofit management, public policy, environmental science, criminal justice, arts administration and health administration. The school maintains continuing relationships with a large number of public agencies at all levels of government; public and private hospitals and health organizations; and nonprofit organizations and corporations in the private sector. SPEA has earned national distinction for innovative educational programs that combine administrative, social, economic, financial and environmental disciplines.

To speak with Henshel, please contact Jenny Cohen, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, at 812-855-6802 or