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Wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base is forever exposed to unusual levels of chemicals.

Sunset over Holloman Lake, with White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) in flight. Credit: Andrew B. Johnson

A team of researchers at the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB) reported unexpectedly high levels of chemical contamination in wild birds and mammals at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, NM. New research Published in Environmental research.

The research found that the animals were heavily contaminated. Known as “permanent chemicals,” or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Even low concentrations of PFAS are known to cause cancer and developmental, reproductive, immune system, and endocrine problems in animals and humans.

Although PFAS has been found in a variety of wildlife worldwide, the new findings are unprecedented for unusually high concentrations in numerous species. In 23 species of birds and mammals, PFAS concentrations averaged in the tens of thousands of parts per billion. To put this in perspective, the research team pointed out that thousands of dairy cattle in Clovis, NM, recently had to be destroyed because their milk was contaminated with less than six parts per billion.

The study focused on the area around Lake Holloman, which is located in the middle of the vast, dry Tolerosa Basin between Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands National Park. The lake is part of a system of wastewater catchment ponds built by the Air Force.

“Because these large wetlands are unique in the region, they are extremely attractive to wildlife,” said MSB Director and Professor of Biology Christopher Witt, and lead author of the study.

“The Holloman is one of the three most important watersheds for migratory waterfowl in New Mexico – more than 100 species and tens of thousands of individuals use these habitats annually,” Witt explained. “Wetlands are also heavily used by people for recreation and hunting.”

The major cause of pollution is believed to be firefighting foam, which has been deployed by the US Air Force for decades. The foam contained toxic PFAS compounds that have since been phased out. Beginning around 1970, foam was widely used for training exercises at military installations. At Holloman AFB, runoff flowed into a wastewater catchment.

  • Wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base is forever exposed to unusual levels of chemicals.

    The Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) is a rare species that breeds on the shores of Holloman Lake. Credit: Michael J. Anderson

  • Wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base is forever exposed to unusual levels of chemicals.

    The male redhead (Aythya americana), one of the duck species affected by PFAS contamination at Lake Holloman. Credit: Michael J. Anderson

“PFAS compounds are very stable, so they only accumulate there in water and sludge,” said Jean-Luc Cartron, research associate in the MSB Division of Mammals and research professor in the Department of Biology, who co-authored the study. “These substances also bind to proteins, so they are easily taken up by organisms and then transported.

To understand the movement of PFAS through the food web in Lake Holloman, the research team conducted more than 2,000 measurements, examining different compounds in different species and tissue types. The team focused on waterfowl because they have high exposure to polluted water and are sought after by predators.

A set of nearby desert mice were also tested because they would not be directly exposed to water. Thus, their potential contamination would reveal other pathways of PFAS movement.

Notably, the team found that both aquatic and terrestrial species are highly polluted.

“There were differences between species in how much of each PFAS they contained, reflecting differences in their habitats, diet and physiology,” said study co-author Chauncey Gedek, Ph.D. Is.” student in the Department of Biology. “Ultimately, these differences explain the different pathways by which PFAS can move through ecosystems and accumulate in different species, including people.”

Working with the natural history collections at MSB brought several benefits to this study. For example, the team was able to screen for PFAS in rodent samples collected at Holloman Air Force Base in 1994 for a different research project. Tissues from these 1994 mice were stored in their entirety at the MSB Division of Genomic Resources, a world-class cryocollection facility.

Wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base is forever exposed to unusual levels of chemicals.

UNM professor Christopher Witt collects duck decoys from Lake Holloman at dusk. Credit: Christopher Witt

The history of the firefighting foam suggests that the Holloman AFB wetlands should have been contaminated with PFAS since the 1970s. As predicted, the 1994 samples were loaded with PFAS.

“In fact, the single most contaminated individual in the study was a 1994 sample of a white-footed mouse,” said Jon Dunham, co-author and MSB’s senior collections manager in the Division of Mammals. “These results show that wildlife tissue contamination in Holoman has been unusually high for at least three decades.”

“Natural history collections are uniquely positioned to document the status or health of populations over space and time,” said Joseph Cook, Distinguished Professor of Biology, study co-author and curator of mammals at MSB. “This study exemplifies how museum collections are providing important insights into our changing planet as artifacts are used to address diverse environmental and social issues.”

Hunting is popular in Holloman Lake as well as in the surrounding area. New research shows that consuming wild game off-site may be harmful. Based on the average PFAS concentration found in duck meat from the site, it would never be advisable to consume as much as one gram (for comparison, a US penny weighs 2.5 grams).

Further research will be needed to understand the degree of risk to human health from PFAS contamination in the region. For example, exposure can occur by inhaling airborne particles or eating meat from oryx or free-ranging cattle that frequent the area.

Isolated desert wetlands that create oases for animals also act as a trap for the accumulation of pollutants.

“Creating this productive wetland ecosystem was great for biodiversity, so it’s critical that we continue to do research that will help guide its restoration,” Witt said.

More information:
Christopher C. Witt et al, Abnormal Levels of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Vertebrates in a New Mexico Desert Oasis: Multiple Pathways to Wildlife and Human Exposure, Environmental research (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2024.118229

Reference: Forever Chemicals Reach Extraordinary Levels in Wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base (2024, February 23) https://phys.org/news/2024-02-chemicals-extraordinary-wildlife-holloman February 23, 2024 Retrieved from -air.html.

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