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Get the Lead Out

Thousands of Western New York hunters have taken to the forests with the opening of deer season a few weeks ago on November 19. Whether hunters use a rifle or a shotgun, the projectile they use will be primarily made of lead.

We have known for many decades that lead is extremely hazardous, and if consumed, can cause decreased brain activity, violent and impulsive behavior, and even death. The use of lead paint for household purposes was banned in 1978, yet lead is still widely sold in the form of ammunition, and willingly spread throughout the natural world. The dangers associated with the use of lead ammunition were recognized by the federal government in 1991, when it banned hunters’ use of lead ammunition for both waterfowl hunting and hunting in wetlands.

While waterfowl’s digestive systems and eating habits make them especially susceptible to lead consumption and poisoning, the harmful effects of lead can certainly be passed on to humans through deer hunting. A 2009 study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information examined thirty deer shot by hunters with copper-jacketed lead bullets. Meat taken from all 30 carcasses contained lead fragments—anywhere between 15 and 409—with an average of 136 fragments. Fragments were widely spread throughout the meat, as far as 45 centimeters from the bullet’s point of entry. Therefore an attempt to prevent lead poisoning by removing the flesh directly surrounding the wound would miss a great deal of lead fragments. The bullets used in the study were 68 percent lead and 32 percent copper. Many hunters probably fail to realize that upon impact, the lead core of the bullet breaks apart and spreads widely through the meat. This meat is then consumed by the hunters and their families, and often others, as many hunters donate extra venison to food shelters.

Human poisoning through the consumption of lead-filled deer meat is not the only harm, as animals can also be poisoned after the taking of a deer with a lead projectile. When hunters “field dress” deer, they leave behind a “gutpile” of internal organs not fit for human consumption, that is then eaten by other animals and birds of prey. These scavenging animals, which in many areas include the bald eagle, will inadvertently eat lead fragments and become poisoned, suffering the same symptoms as humans. Recently, California has banned the usage of lead bullets in the vast area of the state inhabited by the California condor, after studies linked the condor’s consumption of lead to increased death rates.

Alternatives to lead ammunition exist, including copper bullets, but are currently 50 percent to 100 percent more expensive than lead ammunition. An outright federal ban on lead ammunition would remove lead ammunition from the market and prevent all hunters, even those with less financial resources, from turning to lead ammunition as a cost-saving strategy. If an outright ban cannot be implemented at the federal level, then educating the public on the dangers of lead ammunition, as well as state subsidies of non-lead ammunition should be used to decrease lead ammunition use. Some states, including Arizona and Utah, issue coupons to hunters to make the cost of lead-free ammunition competitive with that of traditional lead bullets, and New York should certainly take similar action to protect our hunters, their children, the poor, and our state’s wildlife.

In the end, we all know that lead is harmful. Before heading out this hunting season, please take the time to consider what we are putting into our bodies and our environment. Lead-free ammunition might cost more now, but a couple of dollars can eliminate the risk of poisoning not only ourselves, but also those around us, and our state’s treasured wildlife.

> Robert Grimaldi, Buffalo

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