U researchers: Hunting with lead poses food risks

Lead bullet fragments in meat can contain contaminants that are impossible to see.

Allison Kronberg

University of Minnesota researchers found that using lead ammunition in hunting could endanger the health of bald eagles in 2008, but they now warn that it could have health risks for humans, too.

University Raptor Center Executive Director Julia Ponder and the School of Public Health issued a policy brief last month  to Minnesota lawmakers about the use of lead bullets to hunt game and the implications for humans.

The brief cited several studies, which found that meat harvested from animals killed with lead ammunition may be contaminated with lead fragments and that eating this meat could present health risks.

“The biggest risk is pregnant women or children,” Ponder said, “[so] questioning whether or not the deer was shot with lead ammunition is a rational thing to ask.”

The brief recommended that hunters consider alternatives to lead bullets, like copper or steel.

Mechanical engineering sophomore Lucas Sudman said he sometimes buys lead bullets because they are cheaper than other bullets.

Sudman is one of the more than 10 million deer hunters in the United States who spend about $33.7 billion annually on hunting products, stimulating local and national economies and controlling deer populations.

“I don’t really get concerned about lead in my food,” he said. “We usually try to clean [the meat] as soon as possible, so there’s not a whole lot of time for the lead to disperse in there.”

Because of their high intensity, Ponder said, lead bullets can fragment into pieces so small they can’t be seen or tasted.

A study of bullet fragmentation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that some bullets containing lead could distribute nearly 500 fragments on impact, with the most concentrated amounts in the two inches around the bullet hole.

The brief also reported that hunters who regularly consume meat harvested with lead bullets have higher lead levels in their blood than those who don’t.

Serious health damage can occur in healthy adults at about four times the typical amount present in the blood and people may not have symptoms, according to the New York Department of Health. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined in 2007 that any amount of lead in the blood could be hazardous for children.

Mike Bazinet, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said lead has been popular since some of the first forms of ammunition were made with it, like musket balls. Lead remains one of the most popular ammunition options because it’s cheap and malleable, he said.

Alternatives to lead ammunition can be up to four times the price, Bazinet said.

The policy brief suggested that Minnesota ban the use of lead bullets outright or encourage hunters to stop using them. California banned the sale of all lead ammunition last year.

“We’re not against hunters having a range of options to bullets they pick,” Bazinet said, “but we just think that mandatory statewide ban on traditional or lead ammunition is unjustified.”

A ban like this could threaten Minnesota’s hunting industry, he said.

Bazinet said a better option could be a voluntary non-lead ammunition adoption program. With a marketplace of hunters voluntarily buying non-lead ammunition, the price of alternatives would decrease, he said.

In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health coordinated with the DNR and the Department of Agriculture to implement a program that showed meat processors how to clean, manage and screen meat in order to avoid lead contamination after the state Department of Agriculture announced that venison donated to food shelves contained lead fragments in 2008.

Since then, Minnesota has seen a decline in the amount of lead-tainted meat, said Daniel Symonik, Department of Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program supervisor.

Randall, Minn.-based Old World Venison Company owner Peter Bingham said he never buys meat from hunters who may use lead bullets, opting to buy from facilities that have passed state or U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection.

“We’re not here to tell people not to hunt, but if you’re harvesting with a lead bullet, you should be aware of the effects,” said Minnesota Department of Health lead epidemiologist Stephanie Yendell.

Nationwide emphasis has been on protecting children and pregnant women from lead poisoning, Ponder said, because they are the most vulnerable to developmental health risks.

From 1997 to 2012, children in Minnesota with elevated blood levels decreased almost fivefold, according to the CDC.

“In non-lead based ammunition, the ballistics are excellent, it’s equally as good, and it works,” Ponder said. “Using something that is safe for ingestion is good common sense.”