Agencies offering advice on minimizing potential lead problems in hunted game

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

Research performed by a few state game agencies has provided proof that people who eat hunted game are running a risk of ingesting small quantities of lead which can be harmful. Children and women of child bearing age bear the greatest risk. This potential problem has not been widely publicized in publications or broadcasts that are targeted at hunters, though. This is not a movement to ban lead shot or lead bullets. The only intent is to provide those who consume hunted game with the latest information about minimizing potential problems.

This is not a huge threat to society. It should not stir up legislation. Even if it did, and even if it resulted in no lead legislation, that would not be all bad, and I am completely confident that American manufacturers could quickly come up with non-toxic bullets and shot. We actually already have both on the market.

One of my neighbors, a hunter of good experience, prefers hunting with copper bullets, maybe a copper alloy. That is a Western thing, and he is from Wyoming. Many western hunters feel a pass-through bullet provides a better blood trail for following animals. Quite true. Most Eastern hunters, at least those who consider such things, prefer a lead bullet that mushrooms well and stays inside the game so it delivers all of the bullet energy to the animal for a quick, knock-down kill. In the heavily hunted East and Upper Midwest, a deer that runs is likely to be dropped by another hunter.

About a week ago I was visited by Samantha Tatoni, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. Her reason for visiting, along with getting a look at this area, was the topic of people who eat hunted game consuming lead.

Tatoni does not come from a hunting background. Her interest in hunting and fishing began in college through friends. She plans to start bowhunting this coming fall. All of this led to her interest in working with the hunting and fishing community, then more recently into lead contamination in hunted game.

This subject has neither been widely explored nor publicized. However, now research has been done in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin which apparently indicates more research is in order.

Findings of more lead than anticipated in venison that was in the North Dakota venison donation program led to a study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that looked at lead fragmentation patterns in carcasses, Examining Variability Associated with Bullet Fragmentation and deposition in White-Tailed Deer and Domestic Sheep: Preliminary Results, by Marrett D. Grund, Louis Cornicelli, Leah T. Carlson and Erika A. Butler.

In this study, various bullets were fired into deer and domestic sheep carcasses. X-ray revealed the migration of lead fragments in the carcasses.

“They’re so small. Too small to see and feel,” Tatoni said.

People who eat hunted meat exhibit elevated levels of lead in their bodies while they are eating venison. Levels decline quite soon.

The greatest concerns are not yet well explored. Lead is known to inhibit human brain development, which could make it a greater concern for children and women who may have children.

“The question of women eating hunter-killed meat is not being asked. It’s also absent on questions about children,” Tatoni said.

This probably is not a huge problem, other than part involves children. More research must be done. For now, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has compiled a list of suggestions for people who eat hunted meat, shortened here:

1. Relax. Enjoy your hunt. Nothing in the lead bullet fragmentation study suggests you shouldn’t go deer hunting.

2. Do take lead exposure seriously. Lead is harmful. Pregnant women and children under six should never be placed in a situation where they could ingest lead particles.

3. Lead in venison has not been linked to any illnesses. Do not use deer with excessive shot damage.

4. Bullet selection can minimize your exposure to lead. Muzzleloader bullets and shotgun slugs leave less lead in an animal than high speed centerfire bullets. Copper bullets and bullets completely enclosed in copper leave the least lead.

5. Firearm type can minimize your exposure to lead.

6. Shot placement can minimize your exposure to lead. Avoid hitting large bones.

7. Trim liberally around the wound channel.

8. Ground venison tends to contain the most lead.

9. Ultimately, the decisions are yours.

You can read the entire initial report at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, www.mndnr.gov/lead.


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