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Eliminating Geese and Mercury
Recently I had dinner with our Lamb cartoonist, Harry Trumbore and family at their home, which borders a forested area. Harry puts out a plentiful supply of food for the many varieties of birds in the area. I was intrigued when I saw a redheaded woodpecker go to the feeder, then fly to a tree where it spent a brief period before flying away. Almost immediately, another woodpecker without a red head appeared at the very same spot on the tree.
I thought this was quite a coincidence and called it to Harry’s attention. I learned that the woodpeckers peck the hole in the tree as a vessel in which to place peanuts while they break and eat the nuts. Just one more instance of avian cleverness and cooperation, either intentional or not.
I learned a couple of other things from Harry when, on Easter Sunday, he drove me to visit my wife, recovering from her knee replacement surgery in a rehabilitation facility in Morristown. (It was my first visit following my own surgery to repair a hernia on April 7.) On the way over, Harry pointed out that I had been passing the house of famed cartoonist Thomas Nast who, in the 1800s, came up with the donkey and elephant as symbols of our two major political parties and also is given credit for establishing Santa Claus as a chubby fellow in a red suit.
On the drive home, I saw a van go by with a legend on the side reading "Geese Police". As you might expect, geese are a special concern here in the New Jersey/New York metropolitan area after the downing by geese of that airliner in the Hudson River so brilliantly handled by Captain "Sully". Harry informed me that one thing the Geese Police do is search out nests and take the eggs and shake them. This shaking is enough to stop the development of little geese and the mother geese will continue to sit on the eggs before finally abandoning them to foxes or other animals that enjoy a good egg, even if more or less scrambled.
On the Internet, I found that Geese Police Inc. was founded by a fellow named David Marcks. Marcks, was using his border collie(s) to scare away geese when he realized that he could make a business of it. Now there are chapters of the company all over and they serve places ranging from golf courses to Fermilab in Illinois, where the Geese Police come by on a frequent basis with their border collies. The collies slink down close to the ground, as would a stalking animal and the scared geese fly away or take to the water. I found one video showing a collie emerging from the water so I’m guessing the geese eventually forego the ponds.
I didn’t see any mention of shaking eggs on the Geese Police Web site. However, in yesterday’s April 15 Star-Ledger there was an article by Lawrence Ragonese on neighboring Morris County’s efforts fighting Canada Geese at county golf courses, lakes and recreation areas. Sure enough, addling (egg shaking) was listed as one of the alternatives to "lethal roundups" of the geese. Other non-lethal methods being used by the county include "scare ribbons" that flap in the wind, eagle kites, plastic coyotes that spin in the wind and solar powered geese lights, blinking lights to keep away geese at night. Morris County is going all out in their program, even employing plastic dead geese to be placed on the ground and floated in ponds and lakes. Hopefully, real geese flying over the area will spot the "dead" comrades and decide it’s too dangerous to land there.
On the other hand, fish are usually welcome in most ponds and lakes. However, it’s the sea-dwelling fish that concern us most when it comes to the contrasting health benefits and dangers that accompany their consumption at the dining table. The proven beneficial effects of fish oils and their Omega-3s have to be balanced by consideration of contaminants, notably mercury in the form of methlymercury, which can damage fetuses in pregnant women, compromise the immune system, damage the heart, affect learning and memory and lead to other medical problems. I recall in past columns citing studies on the mercury content of salmon taken from different locations around the globe.
David Ewing Duncan is an interesting fellow who apparently isn’t satisfied just reading such studies. He likes to subject himself to experiences of a scientific bent and dubs himself "Experimental Man", the title of his book published by John Wiley and Sons. It’s also the title of his article dealing with his personal experiences eating fish in the April issue of Discover magazine. In addition to having his blood and urine tested for mercury levels before and after eating fish, Duncan has had his DNA analyzed to obtain some idea as to the state of his current and possible future health.
I did not know that most of us have in our DNA genetic sequences that promote the elimination of mercury from our bodies in about 30 to 40 days after ingesting it. However, a smaller number of people have mutations in their genetic code that make it possible for the mercury to stay in their systems for much longer, even up to about 6 months! Clearly, this means that, for those individuals, there’s more time for the mercury to do its dirty work, possibly in the brain or liver, where it tends to accumulate.
In his quest to find his own category for mercury elimination, Duncan contacted Karin Broberg, a specialist in the toxic effects of metals at Lund University in Sweden. Broberg and her colleagues have found that two genes in particular help to produce enzymes that regulate the levels of the compound glutathione. If you don’t have enough glutathione, metals linger longer in your cells. The researchers have found that if there’s an A (remember the DNA code "letters" C, G, A, and T) at certain markers in one of the genes, there’s an elevated risk that you’re likely to retain mercury longer. If there are As at both markers, you’re even more likely to have this longer mercury retention tendency. Duncan was surprised to learn that he was one of these double-A types.
I believe that it was before learning of this feature of his DNA, Duncan had his normal background mercury levels measured in his blood and urine. His level of less than 4 micrograms per liter was less than the EPA’s threhold of 5.8 micrograms per liter, a comforting result. Duncan, ever the hands-on type of guy, went out on a boat off the California coast and caught a halibut. Later, he ate the halibut, cooked in butter and basil, and for dinner that day he had a swordfish steak. The morning after his "big fish gorge", he donated his blood and urine samples and his mercury level had tripled to 13 micrograms per liter, way over the EPA’s recommended 5.8 value. In an earlier, similar "fish gorge" Duncan’s level of mercury had risen to 12 micrograms per liter.
After the earlier experience, mercury expert Leo Trasande at Mt. Sinai in New York, had advised him that no level of mercury is really safe and suggested Duncan not try the experiment again. Obviously, Duncan didn’t obey. In the article he tells of other contaminants, e.g., DDT, found in his body and the uncertainties as to all the possible interactions and what levels of mercury and other contaminants are really dangerous.
He mentions the work being done at the NIH Chemical Genomics Center in Maryland. The director, Christopher Austin is working with the EPA and others to study the effects of pollutants on human and rodent cells. However, to really understand the role of pollutants and our environment on human genes will require a monumental effort costing billions of dollars and involving at least hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even a million, to get the statistical data needed to sort out all the intricate interactions of the pollutants we have introduced into the environment.
Meanwhile, Duncan has decided to avoid halibut and swordfish and no more fish gorging. I personally was not comforted by the large picture in the article of the head of a grouper. The caption pointed out that predator fish like grouper accumulate the highest levels of mercury. Longtime readers may remember my accounts of our yearly trips to Marco Island and my love of grouper, which I had many times a week while there. I hate to think of what my mercury levels might have been!
Meanwhile, I’ll deal with our current medical problems. My wife contracted an infection on her replaced knee, which appears to be clearing up with antibiotics. My hernia surgery seems to have gone well. Did I mention the surgery was done by my next door neighbor? Tuesday, he dropped in after his day at the hospital, had me drop my pants and said that all was well with the hernia. He also said that his wife had an extra piece of salmon if I was interested. Later, his son appeared at the door with a platter of salmon, nicely presented with broccolini and potatoes, some tortilla chips and a pepper dip and a large piece of delicious homemade cheesecake. As I devoured this gourmet meal, I gave not a thought to the possible mercury content of the salmon!
Next column on April 30.
Allen F. Bortrum