House sparrows as sentinels of childhood lead exposure

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Max M Gillings , Riccardo Ton, Tiarne Harris, John P Swaddle, Mark Patrick Taylor, Simon C. Griffith


Our understanding of connections between human and animal health has advanced substantially since the canary was introduced as a sentinel of toxic conditions in coal mines. Nonetheless, development of wildlife sentinels for monitoring human exposure to toxins has been limited. Here, we capitalised on a three-decade long child blood lead monitoring program (> 20,000 measurements), to demonstrate that the globally ubiquitous and human commensal house sparrow (Passer domesticus) can be used as a sentinel of human health risks in urban environments impacted by lead mining. We show that sparrows are a viable proxy for the measurement of blood lead levels in children at a neighbourhood scale (0.28 km2), and could be used to monitor changes in lead exposure risks over time. In support of the generalisability of this approach, the blood lead relationship established in our focal mining city enabled us to accurately predict elevated blood lead levels in children from another mining city using only sparrows from the second location. Using lead concentrations and isotopic compositions from environmental and biological matrices, we identified shared sources and pathways of lead exposure in sparrows and children, with strong links to contamination from local mining emissions. Our findings show how human commensal species can be used to identify and predict human health risks over time and space. Moreover, they affirm the emerging paradigm that humans and animals share these risks, and highlight the true ecological cost of contaminated environments.



Environmental Health and Protection, Environmental Monitoring, Environmental Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


human health, lead exposure, house sparrows, sentinel species, One Health


Published: 2024-01-05 03:37

Last Updated: 2024-01-18 00:27

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:
Mark Patrick Taylor has undertaken work for and received funding from the Broken Hill Environmental Lead Program of the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). He has received funding for lead and other trace metal related work from the Australian Federal Government. He has also prepared commissioned reports and provided expert advice on environmental contamination and human health for a range of bodies, including the Australian Building Codes Board (lead in plumbing fittings and materials), lawyers, governments, union agencies, and private companies. He has also served as an expert in plaintiff cases of childhood lead poisoning relating to Mount Isa, Queensland and Kabwe, Zambia. No other authors declare a competing interest.

Data and Code Availability Statement:
Data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Materials (specifically, data S1–S7). Child blood Pb data from Broken Hill are not openly available due to reasons of personal privacy, though are summarised in tables S1 and S5. Data from Mount Isa is freely available from the Queensland Department of Health Disclosure Log 2017–2018 (DOH-DL 17/18-048, p. 133).