Eagles found with marine pollutants

Center for Birds of Prey Executive Director Jim Elliott in 2014 holds a bald eagle for release that was treated and healed at the center.

The most alarming thing about the findings is that the researchers aren’t really startled by them: eagles and other birds of prey in the Lowcountry are contaminated with stain repellents, flame retardants and microplastics.

Those are top predators in the marine food chain, along with one more species:

“We found microplastics in oysters. We assume it gets into humans because we eat oysters,” said Phil Dustan, College of Charleston biology professor, whose class found so much microplastics in eagle feces that under a microscope it glowed like stars in the sky.

“The implications are obvious and severe,” said Jim Elliott, director of the Center for Birds of Prey, about the discovery of the repellents and retardants in all 27 birds sampled among eagles, hawks and owls. “Who’s next on the (food chain) ladder? It’s us.”

Dustan’s class recently tested eagle feces collected from under a nest in West Ashley, in the expansion of an earlier class study that found microfibers in oysters. Other studies have confirmed the bivalves also carry microplastics. The materials are tiny, broken down remnants of fibers and plastics disposed or discarded by humans.

They also turn up in treated, discharged sewage effluent.

“The crazy thing is there’s plastics everywhere. There’s plastics in toilet paper,” Dustan said. The class is now testing for the materials in animals at other levels of the marine food chain.

Elliott’s center did its study in 2013 following federal and state studies that found dolphins and other sea life absorbing flame retardants, stain repellents, pharmaceuticals and clothing fibers — all of it suspected to be from wastewater discharge.

The dolphin studies found animals with weakened immune systems and exposed to so many antibiotics they were growing bacteria strong enough to resist antibiotic medications.

Elliott’s study found “elevated levels” of some of the same chemicals in birds of prey. The amounts found in the birds “are beyond what we predicted going in. The extent to what we found in these birds is scary,” Elliott said. “Obviously, one of the values these birds have is the (top predator) niche they fill.”

Top, or “alpha,” creatures are considered “canary in the coal mine” sentinels for human health. Their presence and health signal the health of the ecosystem overall.

“It’s creepy to think about,” said Ariel Christensen, a marine molecular biologist working with Dustan on the studies. Christensen as a student took part in the study that found microfibers in oysters.

The water quality in the Charleston Harbor estuaries has been deteriorating for years, while the monitoring has fallen off and efforts to maintain it for fishing or swimming aren’t stopping the degradation, The Post and Courier reported earlier this month.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.