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Sent: Thursday, January 29, 2004 12:09
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for complete article: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/29/science/29VULT.html
January 29, 2004
A Drug Used for Cattle Is Said to Be Killing Vultures
mysterious and precipitous plunge in the number of vultures in South
Asia, which has pushed three species to the brink of extinction, is probably a
result of inadvertent poisoning by a drug used widely in livestock to relieve
fever and lameness, scientists reported yesterday.
Studies in Pakistan showed that the drug, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory
commonly prescribed for arthritis and pain in people, caused acute kidney
failure in vultures when they ate the carcasses of animals that had recently
been treated with it. The findings, which followed a two-year investigation by
an international team of 13 scientists, were published online by the journal
Dr. J. Lindsay Oaks, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at
Washington State University who was the primary author of the report, said the
devastation of vulture populations was the first clear case of major
ecological damage caused by a pharmaceutical product.
There has been growing concern among scientists and environmentalists about
the "vast amount of drugs that end up in the environment one way or another,"
he said, but no effect of this magnitude.
A study in 2002 by the United States Geological Survey found traces of many
different pharmaceuticals and "personal care products" — including steroids,
insect repellents and many others — in the American water supply. The effect
of these traces is unknown, but the concern is about the unexpected. One
laboratory study suggested, for example, that antidepressants like Prozac
could trigger spawning in some shellfish.
The vulture finding in South Asia comes as a surprise: while environmental
toxins had been suspected in the deaths, a pharmaceutical drug had not.
Scientists in India and England suggested that disease was the cause of
vulture deaths in India, but they found no infectious agent. The scientists
who did the research in Pakistan said the situation in India was likely to be
the same as that in Pakistan. But they said they did not have conclusive
Dr. Oaks said the investigation, which began in 2000, was prompted by
reports of a 95 percent drop in the number of Asian white-backed vultures
(Gyps bengalensis), Indian vultures (Gyps indicus) and slender-billed vultures
(Gyps tenuirostris). All three are listed as critically endangered by the
World Conservation Union, the international environmental agency based in
Thomas E. Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science,
Economics and the Environment, who has long been a leader in environmental
policy, said he thought the paper made a "watertight" case for diclofenac as
the culprit in the vulture decline.
"I think what it actually says is that we really need to look
systematically at the use of pharmaceuticals for veterinary purposes," Dr.
Lovejoy said. He added, "It does raise a question of whether we should be
looking more closely at the trace chemicals from human use."