Today’s greatest source of lead poisoning may be the easiest one to solve if retailers like Walmart competitively priced and featured lead-free ammunition rather than traditional forms. An estimated 50,000 metric tons of lead are used each year in the manufacturing of sporting ammunition, second only to lead batteries, and Walmart alone sells nearly one-fifth of all ammunition sold in the United States. That lead, which ends up in the carcasses of deer and other game, kills millions of birds annually and puts hunters and their families at risk when they eat meat contaminated with lead fragments too small to detect.
Based on recent years, it’s expected that this hunting season, over 80,000 deer will be killed in New England alone, mostly using lead bullets. This will leave tens of thousands of families unintentionally eating toxic meat. Nonetheless, retailers like Walmart continue to sell these products, even though every caliber of ammunition has a high-quality, non-lead, alternative.
When big game is shot using conventional lead ammo, the bullet shatters upon impact. When the bullet mushrooms, it leaves lead fragments throughout the carcass — many of which are microscopic. Hunters leave behind what they don’t intend to eat, which becomes food for meat-eating birds such as the bald eagle and the California condor. Research done by Bryan Bedrosian of the Teton Raptor Center, revealed that one-third of bald eagles have lead poisoning during hunting season. For birds of prey that scavenge these gut piles and ingest the lead fragments, the death comes slowly and painfully, often taking weeks.
Because these small fragments travel far from the wound channel, as much as a foot and a half horizontally, and are principally microscopic, more than 5 percent of the ground venison donated to homeless shelters contained lead fragments, according to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study. Research by the North Dakota Department of Health documented that up to 87 percent of cooked game taken with lead ammunition can contain unsafe levels of lead.
We’ve known for decades the neurotoxicity and dangers of elevated lead levels, especially with children’s brain development. As a result, the US government phased out leaded gasoline and banned lead-based paint and food packaging that used lead for soldering in 1970. These efforts led to a 94 percent reduction in blood lead levels in the US population. But that was the early 1970s, when there was little understanding of the impact big game hunting with lead ammo had on humans and the environment. More important, there was no good alternative, so banning lead bullets would have amounted to a federal ban on hunting.
In the 1980s we came to understand the impact of hunting with lead rifle bullets, and copper bullets became commercially available. But copper’s lighter weight required changing the size of the ammunition, and rifles configured for a different shape of ammunition fired less accurately. Moreover, copper didn’t penetrate the animal as effectively, making it less deadly and subsequently less humane. To top things off, copper was materially more expensive at the time.
But over the last 40 years, the technology has improved. Copper bullets have become more, not less, accurate than lead. Nearly every manufacturer of ammunition offers a lead-free alternative that is cost-comparable to their lead offerings. In terms of their lethality, copper bullets are more deadly because they have been reshaped to expand, not fragment, creating a wider and longer wound channel. Because a copper bullet does not disintegrate like lead, it travels farther through the animal and is more likely to create an exit wound and greater blood loss. While ghoulish to the non-hunter, the effect is a faster and more humane kill.
Despite these improvements and over 500 scientific studies on the dangers of lead bullets, many hunters continue to believe that copper bullets are inferior and credit the described dangers to anti-gun activists. These hunters may be hard to influence, but retailers like Walmart who benefit from this $21 billion industry know better. By pricing copper and other lead-free bullets at lower prices than their toxic predecessor, and informing hunters at the point of sale, Walmart and other retailers could use market forces to solve one of the last remaining sources of lead poisoning in the United States.
Wendy Jacobs Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and founder of Sporting Lead-Free, dedicated to promoting the use of safe ammunition and tackle in the field.