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Gulls as indicators of contamination in landfills

Gulls in urban centres are exposed to a multitude of contaminants on a daily basis. By tracking their movements, Jonathan Verreault, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Université du Québec à Montréal, was able to determine that landfills and the different types of waste found there are the most significant source of a certain class of chemical substances showing up in these birds.

Garbage dumps may be a buffet of choice for gulls.

During this study, the researcher and his team focused on the flame retardants commonly found in many everyday objects: stuffed furniture, electronics, plastic polymers, etc. To determine gulls’ main source of exposure, Jonathan Verreault used air samplers to measure airborne contamination and GPS tracking devices to record the geographic position of the birds every ten minutes. Using the data collected, he was able to determine that landfills are the real source of the contamination problem. Indeed, while garbage dumps may be a buffet of choice for gulls, the food waste found there in such abundance is scattered amongst a multitude of objects containing flame retardants.

As many flame retardants have a similar molecular structure to thyroid hormones, they could interfere with the birds’ endocrine system, affecting thyroid hormone synthesis, transport in the blood and metabolism. For Verreault, this discovery concerning gulls points to the importance of introducing mitigation measures to improve waste management, as landfill workers are also exposed to the same contaminated air and dust every day. More than just a threat to gulls, it’s a real human health issue!