Conference Highlights Need to Inform Public About Dangers of Lead Contamination from Ammunition
4 June 2008More public awareness is needed about the harmful effects of lead-based ammunition on both humans and wildlife, Ian Newton said in concluding remarks at a recent conference sponsored by The Peregrine Fund.
"We have on our hands a bigger problem caused by lead from ammunition than previously recognized," said Newton, an ornithologist and chairman of the council of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom.
The conference, "Ingestion of Spent Lead Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans," was held 12-15 May at Boise State University. Nearly 150 biologists, toxicologists and representatives of special interest groups attended the international gathering, the first of its kind to bring together wildlife and human health experts to discuss the problem of lead contamination from ammunition.
The conference highlighted the dangers associated with game animals shot with lead-based ammunition that are consumed by humans, scavengers and predators. Rifle bullets, for example, have been found to fragment upon impact, sending hundreds of tiny pieces of lead – many of them microscopic in size -- several inches from the bullet's entry point and path in the animal. Results of a study by The Peregrine Fund released at the conference showed that a surprising percentage of individual packages of butchered venison contained multiple fragments of lead.
"I believe firmly that we already have sufficient scientifically robust information to go public with some of the new findings," said Newton, chairman of The Peregrine Fund board of directors. "Indeed, some would argue that it may be irresponsible not to make our findings more widely known, especially those concerning the distribution of lead fragments in meat."
Currently, there is a heightened awareness that very small quantities of lead from a variety of sources may pose a serious human health risk, especially to developing fetuses and children. Families that consume game meat harvested with lead-based ammunition may unknowingly consume lead, said conference organizer Rick Watson, vice president of The Peregrine Fund.
He said the conference enlightened many participants about lead toxicity and the results of recent research.
"I feel confident that we will see many more studies on this topic in the months and years ahead," Watson said. "Now that we have a clearer picture of the problem, we can work in a more cooperative fashion to address this serious health issue."
The Peregrine Fund began to study lead ammunition after discovering that California Condors were becoming sick and dying from lead poisoning, the leading cause of death in reintroduced condors. The Peregrine Fund breeds captive condors at its World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise and produces chicks that are released to the wilds of Arizona near the Grand Canyon. Peregrine Fund research showed that the scavenging birds ingested tiny fragments of lead dispersed through carcasses and gut piles left by hunters in the birds' foraging areas.
Eliminating lead exposure is critical to the recovery effort because the condors' natural reproductive rate is outpaced by the mortality rate from lead poisoning, Newton said. In Arizona, hunters are voluntarily using non-lead bullets and removing gut piles from the field. In California, lead bullets will be banned from condor country by state law on July 1.
Currently, intensive management through, capture, blood testing and chelation therapy to treat sick condors is required to prevent extinction of a species that has existed for millions of years, long before humans inhabited North America.
"What a pity if the California Condor disappeared, lost to all future generations, from a problem that could so easily be solved, with benefits for all," Newton said.
Despite bans on lead ammunition over wetlands to protect waterfowl, the use of lead ammunition for other types of hunting has continued unabated. Newton said more than 130 species of animals have been identified as being harmed by exposure to lead from spent ammunition.
"Incidental mortalities in many birds and mammals are still staggeringly and unnecessarily high," Newton said.
Addressing the problem of lead ammunition will not be easy, Newton warned, because of the limited availability and price of non-lead ammunition and misinformation among the public and media.
"At the moment we lack any formal system for rapidly countering the ill-informed criticism and opposition that will surely arise in any publicized attempt to replace lead by less toxic alternatives," Newton said. "None of this should deter us from making a start."
Other featured speakers at the conference included:
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