• Blog
  • April 10th, 2012

Get the Lead Out

 By Joel M. Vance

            Should upland bird hunters be required to use non-toxic shot and should lead ammunition be banned altogether?  To most hunters the mere suggestion equates to arguing that guns should be banned.  Them is fighting words.

            Hunters don’t take kindly to suggested changes in the way they do things—but then hardcore hunters resisted breech-loading firearms for a long time before the muzzleloader receded into history.

            That lead is a poison is not in question.  In 1894, outdoor writer/explorer/hunter George Bird Grinnell wrote about how eating spent lead shot kills waterfowl.  Even before that, in 1876 there was an account of pheasants dying from eating shot.  So, we’ve known for more than a century that we’re firing poison onto the landscape.

            Only now has there been a serious attempt to ban lead shot for upland hunting, although it has been banned for use on waterfowl for three decades.  The most recent attempt to extend the ban to all lead shot was denied by the Environmental Protection Agency.  The Center for Biological Diversity had petitioned for a total ban on lead shot.

            The CBD is accused of being an anti-hunting, anti-gun organization.  Neither its mission statement or anything else on its web site mentions hunting.  It exists to lobby for protection of endangered species.  In a statement a spokesman said, “The Center…recognizes that fishing and hunting provide millions of Americans with an important connection to the natural world.  Substantial proportions of our staffs, boards and memberships are avid anglers and/or hunters.”

            More pertinent to hunters is an hard-to-argue-with publication titled Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition.  It’s 383 pages of documentation on the effects of lead on both wildlife and humans, the results of a conference among many scientists which was co-sponsored by Boise State University, the Peregrine Fund, the Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine and the U.S. Geological Survey.

            Every hunter pondering the question of lead vs. non-toxic should at least read the summary of findings and every sportsman’s group should have a copy, available from The Peregrine Fund, 5668 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, Idaho $20.  You also can read articles at 222.peregrinefund.org/lead_conference/2008PbConf_proceedings.htm. 

            Cynthia Giles, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, said, “Lead….is one of the most dangerous neurotoxins in the environment.”  She was commenting on an EPA penalty of $7 million against the Doe Run Resources Corporation in Missouri, among the world’s largest lead mining operations and the largest in the United States.

            Doe Run also will have to spend an estimated $65 million to clean up its decades-long mess in eastern Missouri.  Doe Run’s Herculaneum smelter releases an estimated 30 tons of lead particulate into the air every year.  

            The effect of that on indigenous wildlife is unknown, but there’s no doubt that lead does

kill wildlife.  Birds pick up the shot when they’re feeding, either by accident or by thinking it is food.  And they die.  Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1981 and while there still is a substantial group of waterfowl hunters who maintain that more ducks and geese are crippled by non-toxic shot than are saved from poisoning, the ban on lead is part of hunting now.

            Waterfowls are particularly susceptible to ingesting lead shot because it’s concentrated where they concentrate—in favored duck marshes, shot over for generations.  But how about the pheasant or quail hunters who roam the uplands, shooting only occasionally, scattering spent shot thinly?

            Good science shows that no seed-eating bird is immune from ingesting lead shot and even scavengers like, for example, the endangered California condor, can be poisoned by eating lead-contaminated meat.  The most notable upland lead threat is in dove hunting where an army of hunters unloads a barrage of ammo over the same fields until either the doves or the ammo is gone. 

            Doves do die from ingesting spent lead shot, many of them—that has been documented in a number of studies for at least 10 years.  In Texas where an estimated 300,000-plus hunters kill more than six million doves annually, some 30 percent of the national bag, Texas Parks and Wildlife is doing a study of more than 1,000 one-shot killed doves to see how effective non-toxic shot is compared to lead.  One Texas hunter, writing on a Texas hunting/fishing forum, says he’s perfectly happy using No. 7 steel on doves.

            Biologists collect doves killed by hunters and examine the gizzards to see if they contain ingested lead shot pellets.  They already know that one pellet will sicken a dove, two or more likely will kill it—so if the gizzard has a couple of pellets in it the dove likely would have died from poisoning if it hadn’t been shot.

            The bottom line of all the studies so far is that if lead pellets are available, some doves will eat them and those doves will die.  The flip side is that if those pellets are non-toxic the doves will not die.  On that evidence alone, the question is whether hunter/conservationists are willing to sacrifice their lead shot to save an unknown number of doves (or whether they should be forced to).

            At present, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves a dozen non-toxic shot alternatives.  Other than familiar steel (which actually is iron), there is bismuth, closest to lead in density, two alternatives of iron combined with something else, and seven variations of tungsten.  Search “non-toxic rifle bullets” and Google will give you many alternatives and sources for lead-free rifle bullets.

            We’ve been discussing the effects on wildlife and you may think the choice is “do we sacrifice the use of lead for the salvation of some animals?”  But it’s well beyond that.  Studies prove that even a lead bullet shot into a deer will fragment into many pieces not just at the site of the wound, but almost body-wide.  And many of those fragments are so small that they will not be noticed—in other words they may be eaten….by people, you and me.

            There are “acceptable” levels of almost every toxin such as dioxin or chlordane or other chemicals we’ve tinkered with over the years.  There are none for lead.  It’s poisonous in microscopic amounts.  Does that mean a pellet swallowed is a fatal dose?  Not to a human….but it’s cumulative over the life of the human.

            If you dig out the lead pellets in birds you’ve shot, you may think you’ve eliminated the lead but you haven’t.  Tiny amounts of lead residue remain.  Rub a piece of lead on a piece of paper and you’ll leave a streak, just as a projectile does in flesh. Multiply those tiny leftovers  by a lifetime of eating supposedly healthy, good-for-you wild meat and you might well be accumulating a substantial bank account of lead in your system.

            Lead in a person mimics calcium.  So in older people, those with elevated lead levels, the lead begins to replace the calcium lost through the aging process.  In kids lead is a notorious culprit in slow development.  Think of the horror stories of kids in ghetto housing who have snacked on chips of old lead-based paint.  It’s not some Charles Dickens fiction.  It happens.

            So, as admirable as wild game donation programs are, the donated meat could be contaminated, however slightly, with lead.  Do you want your donated meat to have the potential to poison somebody’s kids?  Do you want to poison your own by feeding them lead-laced meat?  It would be a simple regulation to require that all donated game must be shot with non-toxic ammo. 

            I’m not trying to scare you or be the mouthpiece for the greenies, the tree-hugging anti-hunters, anti-gun crowd.  I’m trying to make you think.  This is not an anti-hunting or anti-gun situation, no matter what arguments there are saying that.  It is a matter of health and it is a solvable one.

            There is a route toward a solution.  The first step is to admit there is a problem.  Once that’s done, the next step is to work toward a solution, agreeing where there is agreement, working out the disagreements one at a time and on a timetable that imposes a minimum of discomfort to everyone involved—ammo manufacturers and hunters..

            Copper or other substitute bullets are available to replace lead for big game.  Steel shot already is an acceptable substitute for lead for most upland game.  Non-toxic alternatives that won’t damage older gun barrels would have to decline substantially in price to be attractive, but they exist and are available.

            It certainly could be done, albeit amid much grumbling and anger.  We’ve gotten vehicles that get much better gas mileage (incidentally, using gas without lead) but some never will accept that they can’t use their gas hogs.  Most go along with the idea, especially when it’s economically pleasant to do so.

            Paradoxically, the Army has begun issuing non-toxic ammunition to troops in Afghanistan.  It seems ironic that we would use non-toxic ammo to avoid poisoning people we’re trying to kill, but don’t mandate it to protect our own. 

            The EPA rejected the petition to ban lead, citing the Toxic Substances Control Act which it says prohibits it from regulating ammunition.  However, a House of Representatives committee reported on the intent of the act.  The House interpretation of the act specifically prohibits the EPA from regulating ammunition, meaning it cannot ban ammunition per se…but the Committee also said, ““the Committee does not exclude from regulation under the bill chemical components of ammunition which could be hazardous because of their chemical properties.”  In other words, the EPA can’t ban ammo, but can ban LEAD from ammo since lead is a chemical component of lead shot and lead bullets. 

            Some 30 outdoor groups, including the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, oppose a ban on fishing uses such as lead sinkers and split shot, saying that it isn’t the job of the EPA to regulate fishing and that it should be left to the state wildlife agencies.

            And that is a valid point in most cases where political interference with wildlife regulations has been notoriously corrupt through the years.  But it also is unfortunately true that wildlife agencies are extremely reluctant to pass any regulations that could be viewed as anti-angler or anti-hunter—witness that most still enthusiastically endorse the Share the Harvest programs without any caveat about lead residues in the meat.

            It would take an environmental ruling, either from EPA or the courts, to accomplish a ban on lead in ammo and fishing tackle, because it doesn’t appear likely to happen through Congressional action, and with few exceptions the state wildlife agencies also are playing dog in the manger.

Read More


  1. Tony Robyn

    April 24th, 2012 at 4:45 pm


    A comprehensive approach as to why, at the end of the day, lead is clearly just a bad idea, can’t be justified by any reasonable measure, and we need alternatives that are affordable. Thanks for posting,

    • joelvance

      April 24th, 2012 at 5:24 pm


      I figured I would get much negative comment but I’m pleasantly surprised by agreement and hope that the move to ban lead ammo gains momentum. We don’t need it and can get along without poisoning both the environment and, potentially, ourselves.

Leave a Reply


By Joel M. Vance   I can testify from first-hand observation that George Washington does not have nose hair or nose boogers. There may be some granite dust and stray pebbles but I didn’t see them. I can’t speak for Donald Trump’s nose condition since I haven’t been present when allegedly the White House doctors […]

Read More
View the Blog »


By Joel M. Vance   There is a photograph in the Vance archives of a man, his back to the camera, standing ...


By Joel M. Vance   It is 1958 and a popular movie on the screens of drive-in movies all over America is ...