Lead in Water – and on Land, in Forests, and in Streams

By on February 10, 2016 with 3 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Organ failure, paralysis of the tongue and talons, respiratory failure – these were just some of the symptoms exhibited by a golden eagle found flopping on the ground not long ago by California Fish and Game wardens.

The bird was rushed to a northern California veterinary clinic where experts, very quickly and somberly, determined the cause of these symptoms: lead poisoning.

The eagle’s blood lead levels were so high that they were literally off the charts – the testing instrument was unable to measure them. Three weeks after she was found, the eagle was dead.

She’s not the only wild creature to endure the suffering and violent death caused by lead poisoning. Not by a long shot. It happens in every state in the union because sport hunters have literally littered our lands and waterways with millions of pounds of lead ammunition. In fact, lead-based ammunition is considered the “greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.”

Lead is in the news because of the tragic and preventable public health crisis in Flint, where water carried lead first into the drinking glasses, bowls, pots, and pans of residents, and then into their tissues. Adults, children, and even pets suffered lead exposure.  Earlier this week, we got reports that two dogs tested positive for lead toxicity. Veterinarians in the state are watching out for symptoms of lead toxicity in animals they are seeing.

Jill Fritz, The HSUS’s Michigan senior state director, has been reaching out to local shelters to determine what resources might be needed to assess and address the threat of lead to Michigan’s domestic pets and other animals. She has so far met with the Humane Society of Genesee County and Genesee County Animal Control, to determine their plans to help their constituents. Local rescue groups have indicated they are willing to help with transporting people to testing stations for pets.

Humans identified lead as a toxin thousands of years ago. Since then, we’ve gone on to require that lead be removed from everyday things like utensils, fuels, paints, and even pencils. But apparently not from our water pipes. And definitely not from the barrels of our weapons.

Lead is toxic in very small quantities. And because lead ammo breaks into fragments upon impact, it inevitably makes its way into the food chain. An estimated 10 to 20 million birds and other animals – belonging to more than 130 species – die after feeding off of lead-laced animal carcasses left in the field by hunters. Hunting families are at risk too, since adults and kids cannot see tiny lead shards within the meat from animals shot and cooked for the table.

Yet, amazingly, groups like the NRA see a conspiracy even when the path forward represents enlightened self-interest for the hunting and ammunition industries.

California lawmakers took action and decided to phase out the use of lead ammunition in all sport hunting by 2019 – the first state in the nation to take such an action.

Now it’s up to other states and the federal government to take decisive action.  The HSUS, along with other wildlife conservation groups and sportsmen, has petitioned the Department of the Interior, asking that it require the use of nontoxic ammunition when a firearm is discharged on the more than 160 million acres of federal lands managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This will result in millions of animals being saved, just like we saw when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 began requiring the use of non-lead shot for hunting waterfowl nationwide.

As with Flint, why would we wait until a public health crisis erupts to address an obvious problem?  Lead is a poison. It kills people and non-human animals. We have alternative forms of ammunition.

Readily available and comparably priced alternatives, including copper and steel, are outperforming archaic lead loads and don’t continue to kill long after leaving the gun barrel. Most of the time, you can count on the firearms and ammo industry to stand arm in arm with NRA lobbyists. But poke around on the websites of the biggest ammo manufacturers and you’ll find them singing the praise of lead alternatives. “Looking for premium performance without the premium price?” asks one brand-name maker of steel shot. Well, it will sell you a shell that “delivers denser patterns for greater lethality and is zinc-plated to prevent corrosion.”

How far the hunting lobby has drifted from the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt. He was a hunter, boy was he ever. But he also understood that “conserve,” as in “conservation,” is an action verb. It’s not an archival matter, where you get a free pass because hunters showed leadership on conservation 100 years ago. It requires active engagement today.

Fact is, arguments against lead ammo are way off target and about 2,000 years out of date.

Public Policy (Legal/Legislative), Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. David Bernazani says:

    The NRA can be breathtakingly closed-minded when it comes to any restrictions on ammunition, no matter how sensible or necessary for the environment.

  2. Karl J Volk says:

    I am for the removal of all lead from any weapons and for animal welfare everywhere Karl J Volk

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