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How Animals Such as Dogs Can Help us Monitor the Environment

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How Animals Such as Dogs Can Help us Monitor the Environment
by Dr. Mary Fadden
Environment Division - St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

Environmental pollutants such as PCBs pose many possible threats to the health of human beings and the plant, animal and water life that share our planet. Many of these pollutants have been found in the tissues of fish and wildlife from Akwesasne. We are not sure what effects the PCBs which are found in the fish and wildlife may have on humans and other living beings, so we would like to study this further by looking at the health of an animal that is very close to humans, the dog. We think that dogs are ideal animals to study because they share our homes, they live a long time and they are prone to many of the same diseases as we are. Studies in humans are often very difficult to do because some people take medicine, some people have job-related illnesses and some people smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. In addition, scientists can do research on dogs in the laboratory in a controlled setting, where dogs get the same diet, breath the same air and drink the same water. By studying dogs first, we would hope to make studies on humans easier.

We would like to look at the effects PCBs have on blood cells of dogs because a certain kind of blood cell, the lymphocyte, is very sensitive to the effects of pollutants.

Lymphocytes are blood cells which have the job of protecting us against infections. Lymphocytes are very important to our health and if they do not function properly, we tend to get sick more often. A certain kind of lymphocyte, called a helper cell because it communicates with other blood cells and helps them to function properly, is the cell type that is effected by HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. This virus kills the helper lymphocytes and people with AIDS tend to get many more infections that usual. These diseases are often deadly to the person with AIDS because they to not have the ability to properly fight them. Blood cells like the lymphocytes are very important to our health and scientists are concerned about the effects that pollutants might have on these cells, even if the effects are minor.

In our project, we take blood from dogs so that we can monitor any of the effects that PCBs may have on their cells. This procedure is relatively harmless to the dog and is one that can tell us a great deal about their health and about the contamination of our environment with pollutants. We then run a number of tests on the cells in the blood, to see if the cells that are there can divide and grow properly.

A few years ago, I collected some blood samples from dogs living at Akwesasne. Many of these dogs had some abnormalities with their cells , but we believe that the dogs were still able to fight off diseases. Abnormalities can sometimes be detected in cells from dogs or people without any symptoms of disease. This small study that we conducted has made us want to continue our research, both in our lab at Cornell University and at Akwesasne. In future studies, we would like to take blood samples and run our tests on a larger number of dogs. This will help us to prove that the abnormalities are really present. We would also like to compare the results we see in our laboratory dogs with those we see in dogs from the community. We would like to take blood from dogs who live at Raquette Point and also from dogs who eat fish and wildlife and drink water from the river. In addition, we would like to also take blood from dogs who live away from Raquette Point and who eat only dog food and who are confined to their houses or yards, so that we have a group of control dogs. We would like to ask the community to help us with this project, which we hope to begin work on this year.

The overall objective of this study is to assess the potential health risks of exposure to the superfund site in Massena. We are using basic neural functions as indicators of subtle environmental health effects. We are focusing on those neural functions, such as reflex functions and neurotransmitter functions, which are essential for the day-to-day functioning of animals and humans and thus provide sensitive and reliable indicators of health. We are comparing basic reflex and neurotransmitter (in particular, dopamine) functions in different classes of animals exposed to the superfund site at Massena and their unexposed counterparts as controls. This comparative study will also determine whether exposure to the superfund site at Massena results on similar reflex and neurotransmitter deficits (health effects) in different classes of animals. This comparative study will also determine which PCBs, a major group of the superfund site contaminants, accumulate in the nervous system and thus may be responsible for the neurobehavioral deficits in the exposed animals. These studies are complemented by a parallel study in the marine mollusk Aplysia in which the wealth of information on the cellular and synaptic organization of the nervous system provide a more favorable condition for the elucidation of the mechanism of action of the superfund site contaminants on basic neural functions, Aplysia displays righting reflex retardation and brain dopamine level reduction following exposure to graded doses of PCBs associated with the Superfund site in Massena. The neurobehavioral and neurochemical deficits are associated with bioaccumulation of predominantly light chlorinated, orthosubstituted PCB congeners in the nervous system, and exposure to a single neurophilic ortho-congener mimics the effects of PCB mixtures. The critical neurons and neural circuits which control the righting reflex of neurons which synthesize and store the neurotransmitter dopamine are known in Aplysia and are being exposed to sediments from the superfund site at Massena and to different types (congeners) of PCBs with the aim of providing insight into the mechanism of action of the site contaminants on basic neural functions that are essential for the maintenance of health. Since the fundamental processes underlying simple reflex and neurotransmitter functions are similar in animals and humans, the insights gained in these studies will be valuable for assessing potential health risks to humans associated with the superfund site in Massena.