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Cutting Through The Rhetoric on the Lead-in-Venison Issue

November 25, 2008.

Earlier this month, the North Dakota Department of Health released the preliminary findings of a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) designed to determine whether eating game killed with lead bullets contributes to an increase in the lead levels in your blood. (See our November 7 update).

The conclusion reached by the ND Department of Health based on the CDC study was clear (emphasis added):

"In the study, people who ate a lot of wild game tended to have higher lead levels than those who ate little or none. The study also showed that the more recent the consumption of wild game harvested with lead bullets, the higher the level of lead in the blood."

Strangely, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (the trade association financed by the shooting, hunting, and firearms industry) immediately issued a press release that seemed to reach the exact opposite conclusion (emphasis added):

"The CDC report on human lead levels of hunters in North Dakota has confirmed what hunters throughout the world have known for hundreds of years, that traditional ammunition poses no health risk to people and that the call to ban lead ammunition was nothing more than a scare tactic being pushed by anti-hunting groups."

Since its release, the NSSF statement has been widely cited as proof that shooting your venison with lead bullets is perfectly safe.

I wanted to take a few moments to clear up some of the misleading rhetoric on the issues around this topic.

Issue: Does eating venison killed with lead bullets contribute to elevated blood lead levels?

Yes. In the study, participants who ate wild game had blood levels of 1.27 micrograms/deciliter, while those who did not had blood levels of 0.84 micrograms/deciliter. This means that lead blood levels were 51% higher in those who ate wild game. Adjusted for other environmental exposures to lead, the difference was calculated at 0.3 micrograms/deciliter, a 35% increase.

Issue: Are the elevated blood levels caused by eating venison killed with lead bullets something to worry about?

It depends on your age and your willingness to ingest a poisonous substance. The National Institute of Health considers blood levels of 10 micrograms/deciliter to be the "level of concern," about 8 times greater than the level found in venison-eating study participants.

If you're an adult, you are not at risk of keeling over if you eat lead-killed venison, but it certainly seems worthwhile to consider alternatives (non-toxic bullets like the Barnes TSX, etc.).

If you're a child or a pregnant woman, the risk is very different. In discussing the CDC study with Hunt The West, Dr. Stephen Pickard of the North Dakota Department of Health shared this (emphasis added):

It is well accepted among scientists is that there is no safe exposure level for children less than six.  While more lead in the blood is worse, any lead in the body of a young child will cause some interference with brain development with the potential for permanent loss of intelligence and development of behavior problems.... As best we know, the level below which a child experiences no damage is zero.  

Feeding lead-killed venison to your children is absolutely a risk, and definitely not an issue we can dismiss.

Issue: Is the concern over lead in venison a "political gambit by special interest groups" and a "scare tactic being pushed by anti-hunting groups," as the NSSF claims?

The issue of lead fragments left in venison and animal carcasses as a result of bullet fragmentation is real; the matter of whether the issue is an anti-hunting plot depends on your definition of "anti-hunting groups."

The following organizations have played key roles in advancing the conversation on this issue. Would you call these "anti-hunting groups"?:

  • The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (More info)
  • The California Fish and Game Commission (More info)
  • The North Dakota Department of Health (More info)
  • The Arizona Game and Fish Department (More info)
  • The Peregrine Fund (More info)

Those attempting to dismiss the lead in venison issue have suggested that The Peregrine Fund — not widely known to most hunters — is an anti-hunting organization. This accusation is based on research that The Peregrine Fund has done that shows that California Condors are negatively impacted by lead bullet fragments in scavenged big game carcasses, and the fact that The Peregrine Fund has recommended against the use of lead ammo in the range of the endangered Condor.

Here's a comment I got from a Peregrine Fund researcher back in October of 2007 when Hunt The West first started covering the lead issue:

"As you might have guessed, many of us at The Peregrine Fund are hunters, and needless to say we’ve all switched to Triple-Shocks. Good for wildlife, plus we aren’t running the risk of feeding lead to our families."

The guys at The Peregrine Fund are not against hunting — they're a bunch of elk-hunting eco-rednecks who happen to have a thing for conserving birds of prey. Being a conservationist does not make you an anti-hunter, as I believe Theodore Roosevelt has made clear.

After the release of the CDC study, the rabidly anti-hunting Humane Society of the United States did, of course, exploit the findings and call for a ban on all lead ammo. But just because the HSUS tries to make political hay out of every issue that comes along does not make this issue any less real.

Decide For Yourself

As sportsman and conservationists, we need to decide whether to play a leadership role in the discussion about lead ammunition and non-toxic alternatives, or whether to distort the facts in an effort to de-rail the conversation.

Because these conversations are about safeguarding our health, protecting our children, and defending the environment for which we claim to act as stewards, the conversations are very important.

Non-toxic ammunition is not available yet for all calibers. If it's available for yours, please consider trying a box next fall — especially if you have young kids.

Here's a link to the CDC report so you can review the data for yourself when reaching your decision.

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