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Lead bullets commonly used to hunt game like deer and elk can contaminate the animal’s meat. On impact, lead bullets can fragment and tiny pieces of toxic lead that can’t be seen or tasted are dispersed into meat.

This lead contaminated meat could impact the health of the approximately 10 million hunting families in the US, and of people who eat the more than two million pounds of meat donated nationwide to food banks each year. 

Lead bullets that are fired from high powered rifles have been found to contaminate meat more extensively than slower moving lead slugs fired from shotguns. 

Sam Totoni, a graduate student in Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, has reported about the risks of lead in hunted meat for Environmental Health News. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with Totoni to learn more.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: How far does the lead contamination travel into the meat?

Sam Totoni: The dispersion of lead into hunted meat is affected by different variables, and this includes the bullet type, the bullet velocity and the shot placement.

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 detected fragments of lead up to 18 inches away from the wound channel.

Scientists have found concentrations of lead more than 100 times [the European Commission] limit in the meat of lead shot carcasses.

The FDA does not recognize a safe limit for the amount of lead in meat, so scientists often compare the concentrations of lead they detect in hunted meat to the limit recognized by the European Commission, and scientists have found concentrations of lead more than 100 times this limit in the meat of lead shot carcasses as far as six inches away from the entry wound. 

Holsopple: How prevalent a problem is this? 

Totoni: It’s difficult to predict. The inspection program that is implemented by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for hunted meat that is donated to food banks gives some clue as to how common it can be for meat to be contaminated by lead. They inspected roughly 13,000 pounds of donated venison, and they detected lead in over 940 pounds of the meat.

If children ate just two meals per month of meat that was contaminated with lead that most of those children would have blood lead levels reaching 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood.

However, over the past six years, from their inspection results, you can see that the level of contamination varies wildly from year to year. Their donation program actually discourages the donation of ground meat, because lead is such a soft metal, the grinding equipment can just take one small piece of lead and spread it through multiple packages. Here in Pennsylvania, ground meat is the main kind of venison that is distributed by venison donation programs to the food banks.

Holsopple: Are there regulations about inspections for lead in donated meat by USDA or here in Pennsylvania?

Totoni: No. I originally reached out to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and they referred me to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, who referred me to the USDA. They indicated that venison is exempt from inspection at the federal level, and said that this would instead be in the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. The [FDA] referred me back to the state agencies.

The Dangers of Lead

Holsopple: How does lead ingested in meat impact people’s bodies? How dangerous is it? 

Totoni: Lead has similar properties to essential elements like calcium, iron and zinc. This similarity allows lead to gain access through cell membranes in the body. There is no concentration of lead in the blood that is considered safe for humans.

There was a study conducted in Wisconsin focused on hunted meat that was donated to food banks. They estimated that if children ate just two meals per month of meat that was contaminated with the average level of lead contamination that most of those children would have blood lead levels reaching 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood. For reference, five micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood is considered to be elevated and levels even lower than that still put children at risk for decreased cognitive performance and behavioral problems.

Those levels of lead in the blood of pregnant women have been associated with nearly quadrupling the odds of a miscarriage and increasing the risk of preeclampsia, which is a life threatening, high blood pressure condition during pregnancy. Low levels of lead in the blood have also been associated with high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease.

One thing that we have found through research and reporting is that if you are a hunter in Pennsylvania, and you want to find information about the risks of eating lead-shot meat, information from state agencies such as the Health Department or the Game Commission with regards to risks to human health are absent.

You’re more likely to find misinformation that is deliberately distributed by special interest groups that claim that if anyone is talking about lead contaminated meat, they have an ulterior motive to ban hunting or to ban guns. 

Holsopple: What can hunters or processors do to reduce the risk of lead in game meat?

Totoni: Well, the easiest thing they could do is not to use lead ammunition. However, for hunters that continue to use lead ammunition, two other pieces of advice would be to really keep shot placement in mind. Taking good shots, and avoiding hitting bones in the shoulders or hips, for instance, is likely to result in less extensive lead contamination. Another way to reduce risk of exposure to lead contaminated meat is to avoid eating ground meat.

Another way to reduce risk of exposure to lead contaminated meat is to avoid eating ground meat.

Food Banks and Calls for Inspection

Holsopple: What other steps would you like to see around this issue?

Totoni: I spoke with an expert in environmental justice who said that the lack of inspection for lead-shot donated meat to food banks is an issue of environmental injustice. She believes that there is a need for swift action to screen donated meat for lead contamination. She said that it’s an issue of justice, with agencies not taking responsibility for ensuring that the food supply is safe, and pointed out that people relying on food banks may already be impacted by other stressors that make them more vulnerable to environmental health risks.

One way that this is different from other environmental justice issues is how quickly it can be addressed through implementing an inspection program, and how that solution can be implemented without the onus being put on the people who are being exposed.

Reaction (or Not) from the Hunting Community

We reached out to the Pennsylvania Game Commission about whether it does education or outreach about lead contaminated meat, but did not receive a comment. Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a venison and wild game donation program in Pennsylvania which last year donated 160,000 pounds of meat to food banks, did not respond to our inquiry about whether meat donated through the program is screened for lead.

The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists represents 65,000 members, including sportsmen’s clubs, state organizations and individuals. Harold Daub, the group’s executive director, said lead contamination in game meat isn’t really on the radar of most hunters in the state. The organization is trying to raise awareness of lead poisoning of wildlife like bald eagles, who are likely to eat deer and other carcasses that have been left by hunters. 

“That’s the way to get to us hunters, is to say, ‘Hey, if you do this, this is the effect you’re having on the other wildlife.’” Daub said. “It’s real important that everybody understand this is not an anti-gun anti hunting issue.”

Daub said it’s an issue he’s pretty recently come to learn about himself, and through social media and meetings is talking with other hunters about considering the use of — in some circumstances — non-lead bullets, like those made from copper. He said the performance of these bullets is good, and the price is becoming comparable with lead ammunition. 

The use of lead bullets in hunting waterfowl has been banned since 1991 in the U.S. California banned hunting with lead bullets in 2013. 

Sam Totoni wrote about the health risks of lead in hunted meat for Environmental Health News, with James Fabisiak, Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities and Martha Ann Terry, a faculty member in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, both at Pitt Public Health.