Lead Bullet Ban Overturned
Newly appointed Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently overturned a ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle in all national parks and wildlife refuges. The ban had been implemented on the Obama administration’s last full day in office as part of a nearly decade-long effort, but was delayed due to strong opposition by gun and sportsmen’s organizations.
Despite widespread acceptance of a nationwide restriction on the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl in 1991, federal efforts to curb the use of lead ammunition for hunting have been largely opposed.
Opponents of the ban cite the added expense of lead bullet alternatives as one of the main rationales for opposing the ban, and claim that evidence of significant effects on wildlife populations from the use of lead bullets is lacking.
Those in favor of the ban argue that inexpensive alternatives are available and affordable, and that their use has long been justified by extensive documentation of lead poisoning from ammunition sources as a well-established cause of mortality in many birds of prey both domestically and globally.
This x-ray of a condor that died from lead poisoning shows lead fragments in its digestive tract.
Photo credit: National Park Service
Lead Risks on the Rise
Lead is a toxic metal, an environmental contaminant, and a nerve poison; even trace amounts are harmful to both wildlife and humans, especially to children Lead is also ubiquitous, found in peeling window paint, leaching from corroded pipes, and embedded in the soils of suburban backyards and rural forests. Although its use has been largely discontinued in paints, pesticides, and gasoline, it is still used to manufacture lead bullets, fishing sinkers, and tackle.
Concerns about lead contamination in wildlife cannot be easily dismissed. Scavenging and predatory birds and mammals typically ingest lead shot or bullets by consuming either the remnants of carcasses left behind by hunters, or prey animals which have themselves ingested gunshot or carry stray lead pellets in their flesh. According to one USGS scientist, “the magnitude of poisoning in some species such as waterfowl, eagles, California condors, swans and loons is daunting.”
Lead from hunting and fishing creates a hazard for humans as well. Over time, spent or lost lead ammunition and fishing tackle can dissolve into water bodies or leach into soils, creating a toxic source of non-point pollution for surface and groundwater. Studies have also found direct lead exposure risk from the consumption of lead metal fragments in contaminated meat at levels with implications for those regularly consuming venison or other wild game.
This x-ray of a mule deer shows hundreds of lead bullet fragments that were spread through the neck after it was shot with a lead rifle bullet.
According to medical experts, no amount of lead is safe, particularly in children; even small amounts are associated with increased risk of heart failure in adults and with loss of cognitive function in children. No environmental toxin has been as extensively studies as lead, and skepticism of its effects as part of the highly polarized lead ammunition ban debate compelled scientists to publish a consensus statement of scientists on associated health risks. This should raise alarm bells not only for those who enjoy hunting or fishing, but for those committed to the stewardship of nature protecting and public health.
With concerns over lead on the rise, states are starting to limit the use of lead bullets or subsidize alternatives. California’s lead bullet ban stems from the well-established impacts of lead-contaminated prey on the condor, an endangered species native to the state. Massachusetts recently prohibited the use of lead bullets at the Mass Military Reservation on Cape Cod to protect a local water resource, and prohibited statewide the use of lead sinkers for fishing. Arizona has taken a less regulatory approach by offering lead-free alternatives to hunters at no cost.
Events like the recent water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan often cast a brief spotlight on the issue of lead exposure in the U.S., but the problem is far more systemic and widespread than is generally known, often spanning generations and correlating closely with poverty rates. One recent investigation found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates 2-4 times higher than those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. Decisive and immediate action is needed to remediate risk exposure in the U.S., and steps must be taken to protect both wildlife and humans.
All Roads Lead to Rome, Again?
Lead poisoning was documented as far back as ancient Roman times, where it was used to make water pipes, household goods, and to sweeten food and wine. Some historians hypothesized that chronic lead toxicity eventually led to the downfall of the Roman Empire, arguably one of the most powerful in human history. Today, health experts agree on the urgency of ending what is now known to be a major source of lead for animals and humans: spent lead bullets and shotgun pellets.
The Center for Disease Control and various states have taken steps to warn the public about the risks posed by spent lead ammunition, but few regulations actually restrict or ban its use. A 2013 peer-reviewed study on the availability, price, and effectiveness of lead-free hunting rifle ammunition found that there is no major difference in the retail price of equivalent lead –free and lead-core ammunition.
Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine is an example of a federally-owned land where hunting is allowed in certain areas. Photo credit: Department of the Interior
It is unlikely that lead will have such catastrophic effects on human populations today as compared with the people of Ancient Rome, but lead does reap significant chronic health impacts on those individuals exposed to it. Switching to lead-free ammunition and fishing gear would have immediate benefits to both wildlife and the ten million hunters and their families who enjoy the outdoors. State and federal policy makers should more aggressively pursue this issue in the interest of protecting the health of people and wildlife through both legislation and education.
Karen Heymann is Mass Audubon’s Legislative Director.