Earth Week Excerpts: From “Lead Bullets and the Environment,” by Colin Stanton

April 30, 2012

Many species of birds, both thriving and endangered, are dying daily from lead poisoning because the overwhelming majority of ammunition used for hunting is lead based. The ammunition comes in two forms: the standard bullet and the shot. The latter is what is used by shotguns and instead of a single piece of metal traveling through the air at thousands of feet per second, a spray of pellets is emitted to drench a target. The use of this ammunition has caused birds—specifically predatory and scavenger birds—to come into secondary contact with lead and subsequently develop lead poisoning. The main family of birds that fall into the predator category is the raptors, which include golden and bald eagles; examples of scavengers include vultures and condors. These birds do not have normal access to lead aside from that which they get through human interaction, so it is imperative that lead based ammunition be banned. . . .

Professor Bryan Watts, director of William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology, says, “A piece of lead smaller than a BB pellet is enough to kill an adult eagle” (Nealon). Taking into consideration that a shot sprays a large amount of BB sized pellets at a target and that the section of the animal hit by the spray is usually left in the wild, chances are high for lead poisoning to occur. . . . New evidence indicates “that lead bullets fragment as they pass through prey items, leaving a trail of small pieces of lead that can be widely distributed within the body of the prey…. Consequently, scavengers can be exposed to high lead concentrations even when feeding on body parts far from the bullet’s final destination.” So, even when a hunter takes proper care in dressing a kill, many fragments can be left behind for the consumption of many scavengers, leading to their possible deaths. . . .

Consider professional butchers. They slice up meat for a living, getting rid of imperfections and any unwanted material, yet lead fragments in game hunted by shot are so small and distant from the clearly damaged tissue that these “professional butchers do not remove them when trimming venison for human consumption” (Knott et al, 95). Thus, “ingestion of fragmented lead ammunition is a potential concern as a cause of elevated dietary exposure of humans to lead” (Knott et al, 98). If a human was killed from lead poisoning after eating meat containing lead, the butcher would be held accountable and would have to go to court to defend themselves against negligent manslaughter charges. Or if the human was lucky and only got poisoned, the butcher would have to pay some sort of court ordered restitution. However, when it comes to animals, no law is even in place to protect them against a negligent man. Anthony Prieto, a hunter and anti-lead advocate, wrote, “I’ve seen X-rays of shot game showing dust-sized lead particles spread throughout the meat, far away from the bullet hole. The best solution is to stop using lead ammunition altogether.” It should be noted that Prieto is normally against anything that takes away hunting rights, for if it did he would not be involved in the campaign to abolish lead ammunition (Prieto).

. . . [S]o why not just create a law now to be safe before anything permanent happens? After all, it is easier to switch to and from man-made goods than to recreate a species. It has been suggested that this change has not occurred because “strong traditions and prejudices are hard to break even when the available information overwhelmingly favours change” (Fisher et al, 428).

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