Dear EarthTalk: What’s the big deal about lead in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle? If an animal is going to die anyway, it’s not going to get lead poisoning, right?
— Bill Joyce, Euclid, OH
The issue of lead in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle isn’t so much about lead contaminating the spoils of hunters and fishermen but about lead accumulating in our ecosystems and poisoning other animals that ingest it. “Lead is an extremely toxic element that we’ve sensibly removed from water pipes, gasoline, paint and other sources dangerous to people,” reports the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “Yet toxic lead is still entering the food chain through widespread use of lead hunting ammunition and fishing tackle, poisoning wildlife and even threatening human health.”
The group reports that at least 75 wild bird species in the United States—including bald eagles, golden eagles, ravens and endangered California condors—are routinely poisoned by spent lead ammunition. Meanwhile, every year thousands of cranes, ducks, swans, loons, geese and other waterfowl ingest spent lead shot or lead fishing sinkers lost in lakes and rivers “often with deadly consequences.”
“Animals that scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead bullet fragments, or wading birds that ingest spent lead-shot pellets or lost fishing weights mistaking them for food or grit, can die a painful death from lead poisoning, while others suffer for years from its debilitating effects,” reports CBD. Across the U.S. some 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunters every year. Another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons in fishing lures and sinkers are lost in ponds and streams. CBD estimates that as many as 20 million birds and mammals in the U.S. die every year as a result.
Of course, lead ammunition also poses health risks to people, especially those consuming hunted meat. “Lead bullets explode and fragment into minute particles in shot game and can spread throughout meat that humans eat,” says CBD. “Studies using radiographs show that numerous, imperceptible, dust-sized particles of lead can infect meat up to a foot and a half away from the bullet wound, causing a greater health risk to humans who consume lead-shot game than previously thought.”
CBD launched its Get the Lead Out campaign in March 2012 to raise awareness about the issue and help build support for a federally mandated transition to non-toxic bullets, shot and fishing gear. The coalition includes groups from 38 different states representing conservationists, birders, hunters, scientists, veterinarians, Native Americans and public employees. In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied the coalition’s request to take toxic lead out of hunting ammunition. In response, CBD and six other groups filed suit against EPA in June for refusing to address the problem.
Opponents of CBD (such as the National Rifle Association/NRA) are on the offensive, supporting the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012 (HR 4089), a bill that aims to open up more federal land to hunting, limit the President’s ability to invoke the Antiquities Act to designate new protected lands, and prevent the EPA from regulating ammunition containing lead, among other provisions. The bill recently passed a floor vote in the House of Representatives, but political analysts doubt it will make it through the Senate.