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June 02, 2006

NSAID killing India's vultures

India's vulture population has dropped by 97%. Scientists blame the widespread use of diclofenac (aka Voltaren when sold to people), an aspirin-like drug used extensively on cattle.

Scavenging birds absorb lethal amounts of diclofenac when they feed on cattle carcasses. [New Scientist]


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Are vultures considered raptors?

Why are they giving NSAIDS to cattle? Arthritis? Head aches? Menstrual cramps? Admittedly, whenever I see or hear a cow, I always have the impression that it is in pain, but I always assumed that was just inherent to being a cow (giving the impression, not being in pain).

Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug similar to ibuprofen given to cattle to prevent lameness. It’s cheap and effective. Vultures eating carcasses of cattle that have been treated with diclofenac suffer kidney failure. As vultures are very sensitive to diclofenac and since one carcass will feed many vultures which may travel a long ways to eat, only a small proportion of cattle need be contaminated to endanger vulture populations. There are several species of vulture in India of which three are now critically endangered by this drug. The Indian government has just announced that they will phase out production and use of diclofenac, but some of the implementation of the new policy will devolve upon the states. Pakistan is also affected but so far nothing has been done about banning the drug there. All this has happened very recently and comes pretty much as a complete surprise. Vulture populations plummeted dramatically in the ‘90s and it took some time (which the vultures can barely spare) to determine the cause. The Indian government was unhelpful in determining the cause and, initially, in seeking a remedy. This is the first case of an ecological crisis caused by a pharmaceutical product. The lesson here is that ecological consequences of our actions can be at once profound, unintended, and totally unexpected.

Are vultures raptors? Depends on what definition you're working with. "Raptor" is commonly used to denote the diurnal birds of prey, the hawks, eagles, falcons, and relatives, in the order Falconiformes. The owls, which are also birds of prey, are in a different order, as are the shrikes, which are actually songbirds. Old World vultures, like the ones at risk in India, are classified among the diurnal birds of prey with the sea eagles, including the American bald eagle, as their nearest relatives. Most of them are exclusively carrion-eaters, although a few are known to take live prey. New World vultures, like the familiar turkey vulture and the California and Andean condors, used to be considered a separate family within the diurnal birds of prey but are now, based on genetic studies, thought to be more closely related to the storks, having evolved their scavenging habits independently.
evolved their scavenging behavior and featherless heads independently.

Mr. Eaton is, rather characteristically, being modest in not pointing out that he broke this story in the US media nearly three years ago.

"This is the first case of an ecological crisis caused by a pharmaceutical product. The lesson here is that ecological consequences of our actions can be at once profound, unintended, and totally unexpected"

I guess that depends on one's definition of crisis. It's likely not the first and it certainly won't be the last. There are numerous cases all over the North American continent of severe ecological damage and emerging crises concerning pharmaceutical products. For example, drugs and pills being flushed down toilets, whether at home or in hospitals. Such pharmaceutical products end up in streams, ponds, lakes, and even back into our drinking water. Researchers have proven the drugs do cause extreme adverse affects on wildife, specifically to fish and amphibians.

There has been plenty of time to study the bioaccumulation and toxicity levels related to harmful pharmaceutical products. And although the consequences of actions can be 'profound' and 'unintended', there is surely no excuse for the pharmaceutical companies to 'totally unexpect' such a crisis. On the contrary, it should be expected. And if it is not, than sound scientific research is not being conducted by the pharmaceutical companies. And since this is the case, the pharmaceuticals can cry 'it's all unintentional'. How convenient. The governments involved were responsible as well---cause the research is out there--they knew better.

The primary problem is this: Ecology is still not respected nor used by corporations and governments, including the pharmaceuticals. And until that happens, an ecological crisis will always appear to seem "profound, unintended, and totally unexpected".

GW Bush continues to use that same line of logic for the Iraqi fiasco up til today. He ignores the experts, does what he wants, and than acts surprised when a so called unintended result occurs.

LeTigre, you're right on all points. I should have said a particular ecological consequence absolutely linked to a specific drug. There are for instance, cases of irregular sexual development in animals that may be, or may probably be, a result of birth-control hormones flushed down toilets world-wide, but can’t be absolutely proven. I live on the Columbia River where there are otters with malformed testicles, but no one knows precisely what the cause is. My point was that when our actions backfire, they may do so in unexpected ways. It would not be unreasonable to expect that a substance as toxic to insects as DDT might have ugly effects on vertebrates, but no one predicted egg shell thinning in peregrine falcons and brown pelicans. Your statement bears repeating: “The primary problem is this: Ecology is still not respected nor used by corporations and governments, including the pharmaceuticals. And until that happens, an ecological crisis will always appear to seem "profound, unintended, and totally unexpected".”
We cannot be too careful, we’ve seen unintended ecological consequences often enough now that we must expect the unexpected.

Good points---very well said, cfrost. I guess what I was trying to say is this: the pharmaceuticals can pretend it was unintended and unexpected. It may seem that way for the rest of us. But that is as hard for me to swallow as when the pesticide-making companies asserted the same excuse years ago, as did big tobacco and petroleum....and many others.

When such companies pour money into research and development, very little of that money goes into ecological research and environmental safety. Even when standards are put in place, products that did not pass the safety standards will often still get passed on through by the lab techs (who are under pressure/threat by management to do so). And that even goes for the foods comprised of chemicals we eat, too. Of course, OSHA is either complicit or they just don't find out due to other reasons.

In a manner of speaking, what is intentional and expected is that such companies will not conduct tests they know they should, do not want to test for all of the possible harmful side effects, rarely bring in ecologists, practically never have strong enough internal safety standards, and almost always put bigger profits over ecological stability and safety. What is truly profound is when these companies act as if the disasters were unintended and unexpected. They may appear to be unintended. But appearances can be deceiving, especially when pr firms, corporate lawyers, and pharmaceutical drugs are involved--mix those three and I wonder why we don't have more

I agree with you: we can never be too careful. And for those corporate heads who refuse to be, they are responsible for their perceived inaction and likely obstruction.

Here is what we should expect: Whenever unchecked corporate power is involved with the environment, ecological damage is bound to happen.

Though successful in treating numerous diseases and symptoms, NSAIDs are known for their harsh side effects. These include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, decreased appetite, rash, dizziness, headache, and drowsiness. Also, a 1998 US study shows that gastrointestinal complications following NSAIDs administration have claimed more lives than cervical cancer, asthma or malignant melanoma. These harsh NSAIDs side effects can be prevented with a common and gentle plant - aloe vera.

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