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May 29, 2015

Lead Ammunition: Toxic to Wildlife, People and the Environment

Despite excellent alternatives, lead ammunition still exposes people and animals to this life-threatening poison

Lead is a toxic metal that kills millions of animals each year and contaminates land and waterways across the country. Because of its toxicity, lead has been removed from various paints and water pipes, some forms of gasoline and a host of other items to protect human health and our environment. Yet lead is still the most common form of ammunition used in hunting.

 

Bald eagles and other federally protected birds are poisoned when they eat animals shot with lead ammunition. Photo by Cary Anderson/Aurora Photos

The HSUS, in partnership with the HSUS Lead-Free Wildlife National Advisory Council, is working to protect animals and the environment from toxic lead ammunition.

In 1991, after biologists and conservationists estimated that some 2 million ducks died each year from ingesting spent lead pellets, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlawed the use of lead ammunition to hunt migratory waterfowl.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that lead ammunition is toxic to wildlife and people and the broad support for eliminating its use, it remains so widely used by hunters that an estimated 10 to 20 million nontarget animals in the United States die from lead poisoning each year.

Frequently Asked Questions about Lead Ammunition

How does lead ammunition poison wildlife?

Lead ammunition is toxic to wildlife in two ways:

  • Primary poisoning: An animal ingests spent ammunition (or fragments of ammunition) directly from the environment, usually when foraging for food on the ground.
  • Secondary poisoning: An animal consumes spent ammunition while eating wounded or dead prey or while scavenging contaminated remains left behind by hunters.

Both avenues can be lethal.

How much lead ammunition does it take to harm an animal?

A single shotgun pellet can cause organ failure and brain damage, inhibiting an animal’s critical neuromuscular, auditory and visual responses. Lead poisoning can induce lethargy, blindness, paralysis of the lungs and intestinal tract, seizure and death. Animals who survive often experience long-term negative effects that make them more susceptible to dangers such as predation and car collisions.

How widespread is the threat of lead ammunition in the United States?

Annually, an estimated 10 to 20 million animals are killed by ingesting lead shot, fragments or other animals contaminated with lead ammunition. Animals at every level of the food chain face varying degrees of exposure: more than 130 species from frogs, mice and squirrels to ducks, swans and deer to bald eagles, grizzly bears and people.

How dangerous is lead ammunition to human health?

Lead is a toxic metal for which there is no safe human exposure level. Individuals who consume meat from animals killed with lead ammunition are at high risk for lead exposure. Several studies using X-ray imaging have shown that lead ammunition fragments very easily and very far from the wound channel; therefore, it is nearly impossible to remove completely from meat even after professional processing. Those who eat a lot of animals shot with lead ammunition tend to have higher levels of lead in their blood. Pregnant women and children are most susceptible to negative effects from lead, even at low levels of exposure.

What are the alternatives to lead ammunition?

Many manufacturers are developing nontoxic ammunition using the most advanced technologies. As of April 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had approved 13 nontoxic varieties for hunting. Ammunition made of steel, copper and bismuth, among the most common and effective nontoxic materials, is available at major outfitters throughout the U.S. and widely available online. And since the 1991 federal ban on the use of lead ammunition to hunt waterfowl, the price of lead-free ammunition, such as steel, has fallen.

How do lead-free alternatives compare to lead ammunition?

A recently published multi-year, peer-reviewed study led the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to conclude that the performance of lead-free shot in dove hunting is equivalent to that of lead shot and therefore that lead-free shot is suitable for dove hunting. And a survey conducted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department found that nearly 80 percent of hunters rate the performance of nontoxic ammunition better than or equivalent to that of lead. The superior performance and lower toxicity of lead-free ammunition has spurred the U.S. Army to "get the lead out" of many of its bullets.

How commonplace are restrictions on lead ammunition?

Thirty-four states have expanded restrictions beyond the 1991 federal ban on the use of lead ammunition to hunt waterfowl. Government entities such as the U.S. Army and the National Park Service have made serious commitments to eliminate lead ammunition because of environmental and animal welfare concerns. In 2013, California passed the first statewide phase-out of lead ammunition for all forms of hunting.

  • Click or tap the map to enlarge.

How effective are restrictions on lead ammunition?

The mandated use of lead-free ammunition has proven to be an extremely effective way to reduce lead poisoning and contamination. Within just six years of the 1991 federal ban on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting, researchers found significant reductions in the levels of lead in the blood and bones of various waterfowl species. Researchers found that the use of lead-free shot reduced the death of mallards from lead poisoning by 64 percent and saved approximately 1.4 million ducks a year.

What do scientists say about lead ammunition and its impact on wildlife?

Scientists resoundingly agree that spent lead ammunition poses a risk to human health and wildlife. More than 500 scientific papers published since 1898 have cited the many dangers caused by lead exposure from spent ammunition. And in 2013, 30 national and international experts signed a scientist consensus in support of eliminating the introduction of lead ammunition into the environment.

Detailed sources are available upon request.

The HSUS Lead-Free Wildlife National Advisory Council

Members of the council help The HSUS advance policies that protect wildlife and educate the public about the serious threat that lead ammunition poses to wildlife, humans and the environment.

 Council members

  • Myra Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate adjunct professor, microbiology and environmental toxicology, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Shaun Grassel, Ph.D., wildlife biologist, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Department of Wildlife, Fish and Recreation
  • R. Judd Hanna, chairman, California Wildlife Officers Foundation
  • Robert H. Poppenga, DVM, Ph.D., DABVT, professor, clinical veterinary toxicology, and head, toxicology section, California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine
  • Steve Sheffield, Ph.D., associate professor, biology, Bowie State University; adjunct professor, natural resources and environment, Virginia Tech University
  • René Tatro, partner, Tatro Tekosky Sadwick LLP
  • Kai Williams, executive director, International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council

If you are interested in joining the Lead-Free Wildlife Advisory Council, email wildlife@humanesociety.org.

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