John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The city's toxin-ridden hawks are so contaminated they're "flameproof."
Congrats to Vancouver—it now holds the title of having the "most polluted wild bird that has been found anywhere in the world."
Technically, the toxin-ridden Cooper's hawk was found in the greater metro area in Langley, British Colombia, but here's hoping that won't dissuade city elders from awarding it a grime-stained medal. The bird certainly deserves it. With a polybrominated-diphenyl ethers (PBDE) count of 196 parts per million, it's more contaminated than birds tested at an "electronic waste site in China," according to a study in Science of The Total Environment.
PBDEs are chemicals used as flame retardants in automobiles, textiles, computers, and other stuff. Canada and the United States banned various forms of them in the last decade. The EPA has expressed worry that they're "toxic to both humans and the environment," with the "critical endpoint of concern for human health [being] neurobehavioral effects."
Despite being phased out, the hazardous substances refuse to vanish from the environment. There's even evidence their ambient levels could be increasing, according to the EPA. That might be due to the import of PBDE-laden products, or the chemicals breaking down over time into more potent forms.
The new study found various levels of pollution in dead birds scooped up around the region. Urban hawks, it turns out, are more contaminated than their rural cousins. It's possible the predators could be picking up PBDEs by eating starlings, which in turn feast on things they find in toxin-rich landfills. The health impact for hawks is uncertain, the researchers say.
Kyle Elliott of McGill University said in a press release (which calls the birds "flameproof") that he was bewildered by the findings:
"We were surprised to see such high levels of contaminants in what I think of as 'green' city. We can only hope that because many forms of PBDEs have now been banned and the levels of these contaminants are rapidly disappearing from herons and cormorants in Vancouver, the same will be true for other bird species."
Top photo of a juvenile Cooper's Hawk courtesy Patrick Doheny/Flickr.