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Pollution invades small Pacific island

A Laysan albatross regurgitates food for its chick  
July 28, 1998
Web posted at: 11:07 p.m. EDT (0307 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

MIDWAY ATOLL (CNN) -- Biologists came to this small atoll in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii in hopes of finding birds relatively untouched by industrial pollution.

"We were expecting this to be our control site," biologist Heidi Auman said. "A pristine colony in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean [that] we thought would be relatively unaffected by manmade contaminants."

Instead they found a bird population that had high levels of PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals. The contaminants come from industrial waste dumped into the ocean, which eventually wash up on the beaches of Midway.


Most of the pollutants float more than 2,000 miles to reach Midway.

At the same time, vast numbers of seabirds fly thousands of miles to Midway to nest and breed.

For the Laysan albatross, the garbage is a hazard, especially plastic objects. About 800,000 albatrosses return each year to the island to nest and raise their young.

Biologists have found dead albatrosses with stomachs filled with plastic trash. Evolution taught albatrosses that anything floating in the ocean was usually edible.

Gary Strieker reports on toxic pollution killing Pacific birds
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"And nowadays there's so much plastic and it's brightly colored and they see it and they go down and gobble it up and feed it to their chicks," said James Aliberti of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Chicks are unable to digest plastic and, until they are five months old, they cannot regurgitate it. Sharp pieces can puncture their stomach and if they are filled with plastic, they lose their appetite and starve.

Researchers have found an amazing array of trash inside dead birds.

"Unbroken light bulbs, hypodermic needles and syringes with blood inside, yellow dishwashing gloves, (cigarette) lighters, sometimes six per bird," Auman said.

Albatrosses pick up thousands of plastic cigarette lighters, and mistakenly feed them to their young  

The birds have brought thousands of the cigarette lighters to the atoll to feed their chicks. Conservationists say manufacturers could eliminate one threat to seabirds by making the lighters biodegradable.

The atoll was home to a U.S. Navy base until last year. It is now a U.S. wildlife refuge with fewer than 200 residents.

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