It's been a euphemistic joke in hunting camps that most deer die from "lead poisoning," meaning the alloyed bullets that end their lives.
That's no longer quite so funny after a series of studies indicates that hunters' bullets are not only killing the animals, but fragments of the projectiles are also ending up on dinner tables, mainly in ground venison, where they have the potential to poison spouses and children, too.
That's the gist of a number of tests of hunter-harvested venison that have been conducted in several states over the last few months. These tests on meat that's been commercially processed and donated to food banks indicate detectable levels of lead in a high percentage of samples.
This residual lead apparently is from high-velocity bullets that fragment into microscopic particles that aren't removed when the animal is butchered. A neurotoxin that can affect mental and physical development, lead is especially harmful to small children and pregnant women.
The first study, conducted on a hunch by Dr. William Cornatzer, a dermatologist from Bismarck, North Dakota revealed that nearly 60 of the 100 one-pound packages of ground, frozen venison tested contained enough lead fragments to be detected with a high-definition CT scan.
"I was shocked at those results," says Cornatzer, who conducted the test after seeing x-rayed photographs of hunter-killed deer carcasses that revealed microscopic lead fragments two to three feet away from the entrance and exit wounds. "Under the x-ray, it looked like somebody had sprinkled black pepper all over the carcasses, only the black flakes were lead, not pepper. I'm a hunter, and I thought, 'Cripes, have I been feeding my family lead for all these years?' It seemed like something that needed more investigation."
It wasn't until Cornatzer took his study results to North Dakota's Department of Health that the public-health implications of lead in venison started affecting public policy.
The health department conducted a more randomized test this spring and again found detectable levels of lead in a high percentage of samples from food banks, after which the agency halted distribution of venison from state-sponsored pantries. Shortly after that, Minnesota's Department of Agriculture sampled meat from a number of commercial meat processors and found lead in about 20 percent of venison. It, too, pulled meat from food pantry shelves.
But does the presence of lead fragments in meat mean that the venison is dangerous? Rick Wilson, executive director of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, isn't sure.
"We haven't seen a health problem in the 500 years since humans have been killing deer with firearms," says Wilson, whose program coordinates the donation, butchering and distribution of thousands of hunter-harvested deer in 28 states. "But we are aware of the issue and we're waiting to see what the experts find out. If the wildlife and health agencies indicate that this is a health issue, then we'll do everything we can to ensure that we're distributing only the best, healthiest meat. We just need to know more."
The unifying theme of this issue is uncertainty, whether among America's 10.3 million deer hunters wanting to know if they are poisoning their families, toxicologists wanting to know if lead-tainted meat is a public-health risk, and ammunition manufacturers keen to know if they should be retooling their production lines.
"Faced with all these studies that indicate some level of risk, we needed to chart a course going forward," says a staffer for Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources, which convened a meeting of wildlife managers from seven Midwest and Great Plains states. "We wanted to get together to find out what's real, what's rumor and to start the process of learning more. If there's a risk, we need to find out how large it is and start to manage it."
That meeting, which included representatives from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, took place earlier this month in a hotel near the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Participants' conclusions were as unsettling as they were unfinished.
"While no illnesses have been linked to consumption of fragments from lead ammunition, hunter-harvested deer may contain lead particles," was the main conclusion of the emergency meeting.
MORE STUDIES ON TAP
Agencies that participated in the meeting are following up the initial studies with larger, more focused investigations. In Minnesota, the DNR is conducting a study of sheep carcasses shot with high-powered bullets to determine the prevalence of lead particles away from the wound channel.
The study should help answer how far into adjacent tissue lead fragments travel, how much meat should be discarded during processing and whether some bullets hold together better than others, leaving behind fewer fragments in the carcass.
Last month in North Dakota, another team took blood samples from more than 700 people who routinely eat venison in order to "assess the risk of lead toxicity among people who consume wild game." If results, which are expected prior to this fall's hunting season, indicate that people who eat lots of deer meat also have high levels of lead in their blood, then you can expect the discussion to move from suspended interest to active crisis management.
"We've been here before, back in 1991 when we switched from lead to non-toxic shot for waterfowl," says one ammunition maker who didn't want to be identified. "We can do it again, but we need to have the scientific evidence that it's a problem first. If we get it, then we'll do what's best for the resource and for the public. It will be rough for awhile, but everyone adjusts."
But others smell an agenda in the works. They claim that the basis for the initial investigation, by Dr. William Cornatzer, is suspect. Because Cornatzer is on the board of directors of the Peregrine Fund, a group that has helped research and fund return of the California condor – including advocating for the prohibition of lead bullets in condor range – they suspect a broad anti-hunting agenda is motivating the talk of limiting or banning certain types of bullets.
"This boils down to an anti-hunting initiative," says Jess Brooks at Barnes Bullets, one of the leading manufacturers of non-toxic bullets. "It's as simple as that. We're not looking at this as a bullet-sales tool at all. We're looking at it as an issue to divide hunters and thin our ranks."
Cornatzer is disappointed at the criticism, but says he'll continue to advocate studying the issue of lead in venison.
"I am a hunter and a conservationist and a physician," he says. "I saw something that could possibly be a health risk to fellow hunters and I felt compelled to look into this. No one would be happier than me to find out that this isn't an issue, but we need to know for sure. If it is a health risk, this isn't going to end hunting. Switch over to non-fragmenting bullets that are already on the market and you'll be fine."
A highly anticipated study that looked at whether people who eat wild game meat harvested with lead bullets have correspondingly higher levels of lead in their blood than the general population was released this week. And while some of the recommendations are dire, the results aren't conclusive.
The study was conducted by the Centers of Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Health and tested the blood of 738 North Dakotans who identified themselves as consumers of wild game meat.
The study was launched after investigations last year found lead bullet fragments in a significant percentage of butchered venison. Authors of the blood study aimed to find out if hunters' families that ate wild venison were more likely to have higher levels of lead in their bloodstreams than the general public.
And the result is that there is a mildly elevated level of lead in the blood of the sampled population. Lead levels ranged from no detectable levels to 9.82 micrograms per deciliter (CDC guidelines say that lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood can cause physical and cognitive problems). The North Dakota health department issued this dire warning based on the study:
*Pregnant women and children younger than 6 should not eat any venison harvested with lead bullets.
*Older children and other adults should take steps to minimize their potential exposure to lead, and use their judgment about consuming game that was taken using lead-based ammunition.
Not so fast, says the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which issued a news release proclaiming that the study confirms that traditional ammunition is not a public health risk. The release, in part, reads:
As noted in a media advisory released by the North Dakota Department of Health, the highest lead level reading of an adult study participant was still below the CDC accepted lead level threshold for that of a child, and significantly lower than the CDC accepted lead level threshold for that of an adult. Furthermore, during a tele-press conference hosted by the ND Department of Health, officials stated they could not verify whether this adult even consumed game harvested with traditional ammunition. Correspondingly, the study only showed an insignificant 0.3 micrograms per deciliter difference between participants who ate wild game harvested with traditional ammunition and non-hunters in the control group.