Deer hunting season is over in the West. And if you were a good aim, your freezer is chock full of venison — looking a lot like the meat section at Costco. But be warned, new research suggests that eating game shot with lead bullets may expose you and your family to lead, a poisonous heavy metal.
A large federal study recently discovered that deer hunters and their families have, on average, 66 percent more lead in their bloodstream. And although none of the participants in the study had blood lead levels high enough to be considered poisonous, experts are still concerned.
The lead-exposure-via-wild-venison connection was brought to attention by Dr. William Cornatzer, a long time hunter, Peregrine Fund member, and professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. After attending a Peregrine Fund meeting about the California condor — a bird whose populations suffered in part from eating lead-riddled animal carcasses — Cornatzer theorized that humans, just like the condor, are exposed to lead by eating wild deer shot with lead bullets.
To test his theory, Cornatzer picked up 100 one-pound packages of venison donated to local food banks, then ran them through an x-ray machine.
“I didn’t expect to find much lead,” said Cornatzer, “but when I saw the results I about fell off my chair, there was so much lead.” In all, 58 of the 100 venison packages contained lead. It glowed on the x-ray scan, beaming in large shards and a powdery residue. Cornatzer immediately phoned his state health department.
Since the initial findings, state and federal agencies have tested the connection between venison shot with lead bullets and human blood lead levels. All have come to the same conclusion: shooting deer with lead bullets releases lead into the meat, and if you eat this meat you will expose yourself to lead.
“There are no safe levels of lead in humans and this was an additional source of lead we were not aware of,” said Shahed Iqbal, head researcher of the large federal study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
At high levels, lead is toxic to people of all ages. But for developing embryos and children, any lead exposure is risky. Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause decreased IQ and cognitive function. It is particularly debilitating to developing brains, in part because the gastrointestinal tracts of children and embryos absorb a higher percent of the metal.
After receiving the study results, states in the Upper-Midwest pulled donated wild venison off the shelves of their local food banks. Many states nationwide — including some Western states — are recommending that hunters not use lead bullets, citing the risks lead poses to humans and the environment.
But many hunters were skeptical of the states’ claims. “I figured the results were just because of sloppy processing,” said Lou Cornicelli, Director of Big Game for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “so I ran 40 pounds of my own meat through (an x-ray machine). Fifteen percent had lead in it. I felt like I was at an AA meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Lou and I had lead in my venison’.”
To reduce his family’s exposure to lead, Cornicelli switched from hunting with a rapid-expansion bullet to a controlled-expansion bullet — one that peels back upon impact, but leaves no shards in the meat. Hunters can also use copper bullets, which do not expand, but like controlled-expansion bullets, are more expensive than lead rapid-expansion bullets.
Some Western states — Arizona and possibly Utah among them—are now offering copper bullet coupons that arrive in the mail with hunting tags. Hunters can take this coupon to specific outdoor stores and receive a free case of copper bullets. The state then reimburses the outdoor store and bullet manufacturer.
But not everyone is on board with the movement to switch to copper bullets. The National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club International both believe that the threat of lead bullets is highly overblown, citing the fact that no one in the CDC study had blood lead levels high enough to be considered poisoned.
Hunters in the West haven’t been quick to make the switch to lead free bullets either, according to various outdoor store ammunition specialists. However, an ammunition specialist at Cabela’s Outdoor Store in Lehi, Utah said he slowly-but-surely notices more and more people switching to lead free ammunition every year.
I’m no hunter myself — not for any deep-seated ethical reasons, but rather because I’m busy skiing — but if I did hunt, I’d use copper bullets. I see no reason not to; it easily avoids a known risk.
And unlike some fun-killing measures we undertake to avoid risk — like skiing responsibly instead of like a bat out of hell — no fun is taken away. Skiing insanely fast is fun, but I decide to have a little less fun and ski slower to lessen my risk. I’d rather tone it down a notch than barrel into a group of snow-kiddies perfecting their pizza and French fry stop-and-go technique.
Shooting lead bullets isn’t any more fun than shooting copper bullets; however, it avoids potential human lead contamination. Switching seems like a no brainer to me, but maybe I’ve taken too many falls on the slopes.