Lead in hunted meat poses health risk to families and food banks

Living on Earth
White-tailed buck

Hunting deer and moose is a popular pastime across America and millions of families put that meat on the table with pride — and what they can’t use is often given to food banks. But much of that game is shot with lead ammunition that splinters and contaminates the meat, which can lead to health problems in adults and impair cognitive development and functioning in children.

In the early 1990s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot to hunt waterfowl — a project the agency called a “remarkable success" — and California recently became the first state to issue a full ban on hunting with lead bullets. But in the majority of states and on federal land, it is still legal to use lead ammunition to hunt deer and moose.

And hunted meat goes largely unregulated, according to an investigative report from Environmental Health News.

“Lead ammunition contaminates meat and is absorbed by the [human] digestive system. ... There's just overwhelming scientific evidence that this problem is real.”

Samantha Totoni, Environmental Health News

“Lead ammunition contaminates meat and is absorbed by the [human] digestive system,” says Samantha Totoni, a reporter who co-wrote the story. “That is significant because there is no safe level of lead in the blood. There's just overwhelming scientific evidence that this problem is real.”

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Upon impact, a lead projectile from a rifle or a shotgun can fragment into pieces too small to see with the naked eye or to sense while eating, so scientists have used x-rays to spot and to count often hundreds of minute lead particles in hunted meat, Totoni says. They have also detected high concentrations of lead using chemical analysis.

Lead has similar properties to essential elements like calcium, iron and zinc, which allows it to gain access to the body through cell membranes, Totoni explains. Lead in contaminated meat that was donated to food banks in Wisconsin was found at levels associated with a loss of IQ, decreased cognitive performance and behavioral problems in children.

Those same levels of lead have been associated with four times the risk of miscarriage and increased risk of preeclampsia in pregnant women, along with kidney and cardiovascular disease in the wider population, Totoni adds.

In addition to the meat placed in family refrigerators, hunters donate over 2 million pounds of hunted meat every year to food banks across the US.

“These are great programs that provide critical nutrition for families in need,” Totoni says. “However, most states do not implement a lead inspection program for this meat, even though most of it has been shot with lead bullets. Past efforts to X-ray donated meat from food banks in North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have all found lead in some portion of the meat.”

Bullets fired from high-powered rifles have been shown to contaminate meat more extensively than slower bullets fired from shotguns, Totoni adds, so a ban on using lead ammunition for larger game is likely to affect hunters who use these popular rifles. The “sophistication of the disinformation campaigns and their ability to reach a wider audience and convince hunters that this is not an issue” is a serious obstacle to convincing hunters to switch to safer ammunition, Totoni says.

“I've spent a lot of time with hunters who use lead ammunition, both in my research and reporting, and what they tend to say is that this really isn't a topic that comes up. And when it does come up it seems to be coming from groups that they perceive to be anti-hunting,” Totoni explains. “The vast majority of these hunters say they do want to have information about the potential health effects of lead. Hunters don't want to be impacting the health of their family members or of the people who eat the meat that they donate.”

Price may also be an obstacle. Ammunition made from 100% copper is comparable in price to high-quality lead-based ammunition, but it can be twice as expensive as very low-quality lead-based ammunition, Totoni says. The inspection of game meat is exempt at the federal level, which affects the ability of states to regulate it more strictly.

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Totoni spoke with state agencies in the states that donate the largest volume of venison to food banks every year, including Missouri, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, and they told her that the exemption on the federal level has resulted in a similar exemption at the state level.

“Meanwhile,” she adds, “it's unclear whether food banks realize there is no oversight of lead contamination in donated meat. In response to questions about accepting lead-shot meet, the central Pennsylvania food bank said that they trust the high standards that are set by the State Department of Agriculture and the USDA — who, in reality, have no standards for this at all.”

Totoni says hunters can reduce lead contamination by not grinding their meat because the vast majority of lead in contaminated meat has been found in ground venison. “Lead is very soft as a metal, so even if there's one piece of lead, the steel grinding equipment can actually fragment it and spread it into multiple packages,” Totoni says.

A meat inspection program in Minnesota is unique, she says, in that it discourages meat processors from grinding meat during the firearms season. Instead, the state encourages processors to donate small roasts and loin chops.

This article is based on an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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