Environmental toxicology and chemistry

Sublethal health effects in laboratory rodents from environmentally relevant exposures to oil sands contaminants.

PMID 26139097


Increasing activity of oil sands extraction and processing in northern Alberta is marked by ongoing controversy about the nature and extent of associated environmental impacts. Bitumen contains a mixture of toxic chemicals, including metals and residual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), whose release into the environment poses a distinct risk to the surrounding environment, plus wildlife and human health. In the present study, the authors evaluated several subclinical biomarkers of exposure and effect to mixtures of metals (Pb, Cd, and Hg) and/or PAHs (3 alkylated forms) at environmentally relevant concentrations (100-fold and 10-fold higher than the maximum dissolved concentrations found in snow, to simulate a worst-case scenario), using laboratory mice as a model for future studies of small mammals in the wild. Both metals and alkyl-PAHs exposure were associated with 1) increased relative liver, kidney, and spleen size; 2) alterations in the homeostasis of the antioxidant vitamins A and E in liver; and 3) compromised glutathione redox status in testes, with results also indicating synergistic interactions from co-exposure. The combination of morphometric and oxidative stress biomarkers provide reliable and sensitive measures of the response to contaminant exposure in a mammalian model, suggesting associated physiological costs. Based on the present experimental study, the authors propose that wild small mammals will prove to be valuable sentinel species reflecting sublethal health effects from oil sands-related contaminants. The present study's results also present a basis for the interpretation of future field data.