People who consume venison from game animals shot with lead bullets risk being exposed to lead, according to a joint study presented today by The Peregrine Fund and Washington State University at a conference of scientists, biologists and health experts at Boise State University.
"X-rays revealed that processed ground venison from 80 percent of the deer sampled in the research contained metal fragments," said Rick Watson, Vice President of The Peregrine Fund, a raptor conservation organization. Further tests revealed that 92 percent of those metal particles were lead.
"This is one more piece of evidence that points to lead bullets as a source of contamination in our environment," Watson said. "We have known for years that lead residues from bullets poison birds of prey and other scavengers. Now it appears that this dangerous contaminant exists in food that people eat as well."
No amount of lead is considered safe in pregnant women and children because even tiny amounts can cause brain development and behavioral problems in children. Amounts formerly considered safe in adults recently have been found to increase rates of death from heart attack and stroke.
The Peregrine Fund's study sampled 30 white-tailed deer killed under normal hunting conditions in northern Wyoming with standard lead-core, copper-jacketed bullets fired from a high-powered rifle. X-rays of all 30 deer show widespread dispersal of lead fragments in the carcasses consistent with previous research. The fragments ranged in size from smaller than a grain of table salt to as large as a sesame seed.
"Some of it was closer to dust than a measurable fragment," Watson said. "Without an x-ray, you would never know it was there."
For the study, each of the 30 carcasses was taken to a different commercial meat processor for standard preparation of ground meat and boneless steaks in 2-pound packages. Even though processors routinely cut out and discard meat around the wound and along the bullet's path inside the animal, fragments still ended up in packaged meat.
In addition to the ground meat packages, metal fragments also were found in packages of steaks. Of 16 deer carcasses with metal fragments near the spine, four showed fragments in the loin steaks. Some individual packages of both ground meat and steaks showed up to nine lead fragments, while others showed few or none, making it difficult for consumers to predict which packages might contain lead.
"Our results suggest that people may frequently ingest metallic lead when they consume deer killed with lead-based bullets and processed by normal procedures," Watson said. "Fortunately, using copper bullets is a viable option to avoid the risk of lead exposure."
The Peregrine Fund began studying the dangers of lead-based ammunition after endangered California Condors became sick or died from lead poisoning. The organization leads the condor recovery program in Arizona. Condors are bred and hatched at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise and released to the wild near the Grand Canyon.
Peregrine Fund research showed that the large scavengers were poisoned after feeding on carcasses and gut piles from hunter-killed game. In 2007, 80 percent of hunters voluntarily used non-lead ammunition in condor country or removed deer gut piles after learning about the effects of lead on condors. Condor deaths dropped from four in 2006 to none in 2007.
"We believe that copper bullets will become the ammunition of choice for hunters to benefit themselves, their families, and wildlife," Watson said.
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