We all know that lead exposure is harmful, especially to developing babies and children. But what about eating meat (e.g. venison) from an animal that has been shot with lead bullets? Does the lead contaminate the meat?
This is an important question because hunters provide game not only for their families, but also donate meat (such as venison) to food pantries.
A number of studies over the years have examined this issue and the finding is that YES - using lead-based bullets contaminates the meat. Bullets can fragment into hundreds of small pieces (many are microscopic fragments only detectable with x-rays or chemical analysis), especially if they hit large bones of the animal. These fragments are still there and detectable after processing.
So yes, people wind up ingesting meat with tiny lead bullet fragments, even if they cut away several inches of meat from the bullet's path in the animal. Tiny bullet fragments travel more than 6" inches away, and even 11" away from the bullet path. Studies find that eating meat from animals shot with lead based ammunition results in a spike in blood lead levels - which gradually goes down over months, but also migrates to the bones where it stays.
In 2013 a group of 30 nationally and internationally recognized scientists with lead and environmental health expertise collaborated to create an evidence-based consensus statement called Health Risks from Lead-Based Ammunition in the Environment—A Consensus Statement of Scientists 2013. Along with listing scientific evidence, they ask for the reduction and elimination of lead-based ammunition, in order to protect human and environmental health.
Unfortunately, hunters usually do not know this information. It's not publicized, and doctors don't mention it. But hunters should be informed. One can't imagine anyone wanting to deliberately eat meat containing lead fragments. Or wanting to feed it to children or pregnant women.
What can you do? Don't use any lead-based ammunition. Only eat game shot with non-lead ammunition. The evidence is there that if lead-based ammo is used to kill the animal, then the person eating the animal will ingest some lead bullet fragments.
Excerpts from Environmental Health News: Lead in hunted meat: Who’s telling hunters and their families?
Despite the mounting concerns over lead exposure from wild game, lead ammunition use continues as hunters and their families remain unaware or deeply mistrustful of the dangers.
Lead contamination in hunted meat has the potential to impact the health of millions of people in the U.S. who are connected to the hunting community, including low-income recipients of venison donations.
However, a lack of communication from public health agencies and health professionals leaves people who eat hunted meat without a trusted source of information about the health risks and advice for reducing exposure to lead.
An investigation of dozens of studies about lead in hunted meat, preventative information about lead, and questionnaires used to identify patients at high risk for lead exposure, along with hours of interviews with hunters who use lead ammunition, revealed a concerning disparity between what is known about risks of exposure to lead in hunted meat, and what is shared with the hunting community.
Hunters reported either never hearing about this topic, or hearing about it from perceived anti-hunting sources, resulting in a deep mistrust about the topic of lead. In addition, healthcare providers and health departments are not including the dangers of lead in wild game in their preventative information or questionnaires to identify children and pregnant women at risk for lead exposure.
There is no safe level of lead in the blood. Levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) are considered elevated and have been associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and decreased IQ. However, developing brains exposed to even lower levels are at risk for attention-related behavioral problems, decreased cognitive performance, and increased incidence of problem behaviors.
Although neurotoxic effects of lead may be the most widely-known, low levels of lead in the blood have been associated with a range of serious health effects, including kidney disease and impacts to the cardiovascular system. The mechanisms behind the toxic effects of lead are not fully understood.
As lead ammunition use continues to be widespread among U.S. hunters, experts say it is crucial that health officials get a message out to hunting communities, including useful advice for hunters who will continue to use lead. Hunters want to know what the risks are and what options they have to keep their families safe.
While lead was banned from waterfowl ammunition in the U.S. in 1991, the majority of people who hunt other types of game use lead ammunition.
Upon impact, a lead bullet can fragment into tiny microparticles, too small to see with the naked eye or sense when eating. A deer processor in Pennsylvania who requested anonymity shared his first-hand experience. "Seventy-five percent of the time when I find a bullet in the carcass, I only find the base. I know the lead is all in the meat somewhere," he told EHN.
Scientists have used X-rays to visualize and count sometimes hundreds of minute lead particles in hunted meat, and have detected high concentrations of lead in hunted carcasses using chemical analysis. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recognize a safe limit for the amount of lead in meat, the European Commission set maximum levels at 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
Concentrations of lead more than 100 times this limit have been detected in the meat of lead-shot carcasses as far as six inches from the entry wound.
In 2009, biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources x-rayed deer and sheep carcasses that were shot with lead ammunition to make any lead fragments visible. They found some types of lead bullets fragmented more than others, and that fragmentation was more extensive when poorly-placed shots struck large bones.
They also found that lead ammunition fired from high-powered rifles contaminated carcasses more than slower-moving lead slugs fired from shotguns.
For most people, lead exposure occurs primarily through eating, drinking, or inhalation. While inhaling airborne lead from gun smoke produced by a firearm is a recognized risk factor for lead exposure, eating lead-contaminated meat is widely ignored, despite scientific evidence.
Multiple studies have found a direct link between game harvested with lead ammunition and spikes in blood lead.
In a 2009 study, pigs were fed deer meat that was harvested with lead ammunition and researchers observed increasing blood-lead concentrations within days. "We conclude that people risk exposure to bioavailable lead from bullet fragments when they eat venison from deer killed with standard lead-based rifle bullets and processed under normal procedures. At risk in the U.S. are some ten million hunters, their families, and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations," the authors wrote.
Three studies about consumption of lead-hunted meat were published in 2018. - One estimated that traditional foods such as moose and deer meat provided as much as 73 percent of dietary lead intake but less than 2 percent of total calories for indigenous people in Ontario, Canada.
After an adult's digestive system absorbs lead from a meal, the resulting concentration of lead in the blood typically decreases by approximately 50 percent every month. But that doesn't mean all the lead has left the body. Instead, some lead moves from the blood to the skeleton, where it remains for decades.
As a result, blood-lead levels can be deceivingly low months after peak consumption of lead-hunted meat. For example, a study in Greenland identified a clear seasonal variation in blood lead levels, with peaks during the months when consumption of hunted meat was highest, and decreases during months of lower consumption.
There are some potential consequences of lead exposure unique to women and their fetuses. Due to hormonal changes during pregnancy, lead that has been stored in the skeleton is released into the blood, exposing both mother and fetus. As a result, high levels of lead in mothers' bones have been identified as a risk factor for impaired mental development in infants.
One study of pregnant women found the odds of a spontaneous abortion nearly doubled for each 5 μg/dL increase in blood lead. Lead is also a major risk factor for preeclampsia, a high-blood pressure condition that can have severe consequences for the mother and infant. Women who experience adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preeclampsia face increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases as they age.
Even though some parts of a lead-hunted carcass may be free of lead and safe for pregnant women to eat, it is not possible to identify contaminated meat with the naked eye, and levels of contamination vary from carcass to carcass.
Dr. Braverman told EHN that since it's not clear how to choose safe portions of lead-hunted meat, preventative information about lead-hunted meat could be provided along with other nutritional advice. "We provide education about mercury. We talk about how to avoid listeria. I think it's reasonable to add to that, 'don't eat lead-hunted meat.'"
Childhood prevention information related to hunted meat is absent from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, EPA, and guidance from state health departments such as this brochure from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Although the New York Department of Health issued the following statement, "…people who eat game harvested with lead shot may be exposed to lead.
These concerns extend to those who eat venison donated to food pantries.
Venison donation programs have provided millions of meals to food banks across the country. States with venison donation programs include those that also harvest the most deer: Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia. None of these five states require x-ray inspection of meat for lead contamination.
In 2008, a study analyzed nearly 200 packages of venison from food pantries in Wisconsin, but it is unknown how many packages contained meat that was hunted with firearms. Lead was detected in 15 percent of packages; the average level in lead-contaminated meat was 160 ppm. At this concentration of lead, the study predicted 81 percent of children who consumed just two meals of venison per month would experience blood-lead levels above 10 ug/dL.
Evidence of lead contamination in donated venison first came to light in 2008. North Dakota hunter and physician Dr. William Cornatzer saw an x-ray image of a lead-contaminated carcass during a board meeting of the Peregrine Fund, a conservation organization focused on birds of prey. Soon after, he led a project to x-ray packages of venison donated to the state's food banks. The images revealed lead contamination in 60 percent of samples. "I about fell out of my chair." he told EHN. He realized his children and pregnant wife had likely been exposed to lead from his own hunted venison.