Get the Lead Out

[Jeff Miller, Conservation Advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, CA, is guest blogging today. His topic: CBD’s petition to the U.S. EPA to ban lead shot and fishing tackle under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Thanks to Madeline Sten, P2Rx National Coordinator, for asking Jeff to contribute a post.]

Bald eagle with sternal recumbancy from lead poisoning, photo courtesy The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota.
Bald eagle with sternal recumbancy from lead poisoning, photo courtesy The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota.

When the Environmental Protection Agency ruled last year to phase out the use of lead wheel weights for balancing car tires, the decision passed with no opposition from car manufacturers, wheel weight producers, or public citizen groups. It was, after all, a common-sense decision that guaranteed a safer environment, reducing the lead released into waterways when weights drop off cars and are ground into fine particles by passing vehicles. Manufacturers will have to adjust their production processes, a small price for society to pay for removing a source of toxic lead.

In a similar effort, the Center for Biological Diversity and American Bird Conservancy, along with other conservation, hunting, and veterinary organizations petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency this month to ban lead from ammunition used in hunting and weights used for fishing.

The petition to eliminate lead from hunting and fishing sports has nothing to do with the rights of Americans to bear arms and to hunt. Literally hundreds of recent peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown the dangers of lead in the environment for both wildlife and human health.

A variety of non-toxic bullets, shot, and fishing weights not made of lead are readily available and are equally effective. Some non-lead ammunition costs a bit more, but once lead-free regulations are in place and manufacturers re-tool and begin producing copper, steel, and tungsten bullets and shot in higher volume, prices will drop dramatically, just as the cost of eco-friendly light bulbs fell as they became commonplace.

Lead is an extremely toxic substance that is dangerous to people and wildlife even at low levels. Exposure can cause a range of health effects, from acute poisoning and death to long-term problems such as reduced reproduction, inhibition of growth and damage to neurological development. Bald eagles, golden eagles, California condors, and other predatory and scavenging birds die in significant numbers every year as a result of feeding on carcasses or gut piles contaminated with lead fragments left behind by hunters.

Up to 15 million mourning doves die each year from lead poisoning from consuming spent lead shot pellets, which they mistake for grit– that’s almost as many doves as are intentionally killed by hunters. Swans, cranes, ducks, geese, loons and other waterfowl ingest spent lead shotgun pellets and lead-based fishing tackle lost in lakes and rivers, often with deadly consequences.

The deaths of these and other lead-poisoned birds due to renal failure, neurological dysfunction, or seizures are slow and painful. Harder to measure, yet possibly more significant than direct mortality, are secondary losses due to the “sub-lethal” effects of lead, such as reproductive failure, increased susceptibility to disease and infection, and increased predation due to anemia and weakened muscles.

In the United States, 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunting every year, another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fishing lures and sinkers. The science on the environmental impacts of lead ammunition poisoning is indisputable. The petition references nearly 500 peer-reviewed scientific studies that starkly illustrate the widespread dangers from lead ammunition and fishing tackle. At least 75 wild bird species in the United States are poisoned by spent lead ammunition, including our national symbol, the bald eagle.

Humans who eat game meat shot with lead bullets are also at risk. X-rays of shot deer and of packaged game meat reveal tiny fragments of lead left behind when bullets disintegrate on impact. Children are particularly sensitive to even low levels of exposure to lead and can suffer neurological damage. In recent decades our society has taken actions to reduce human exposure to lead from paint, gasoline, water pipes, toys, waste dumps, and shooting ranges. Spent ammunition and fishing weights are the major remaining uncontrolled sources of ecologically relevant lead exposure.

Hunters have made substantial contributions to conservation – funds from their hunting licenses and the voluntary purchase of duck stamps support National Wildlife Refuges and wildlife habitat. Shooting non-lead ammunition is a logical continuation of hunting conservation ethics, which is why the hunting group Project Gutpile, one of the co-petitioners to the EPA, has been rallying hunter support for the switch to non-lead.

The change to lead-free ammunition is essential, reasonable, and timely. Advances in technology and increased knowledge of lead’s risks mean we can now enjoy hunting and fishing without contaminating the land, wildlife, or ourselves.

For more information visit the Center for Biological Diversity’s Get the Lead Out web page.

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