The incoming DEFRA ministers, will soon have to make a decision on whether to ban the use of lead ammunition in England. The science is pretty straightforward, and has been reviewed by an expert group, but the expected recommendation, to ban lead ammunition, will be deeply unpopular with vocal interest groups.
I had a part in kicking off this process when, in October 2009, I wrote a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Environment (Hilary Benn) and the Secretary of State for Health (Andy Burnham) asking for a group to be set up to look at the impacts of lead poisoning on wildlife and human health. My co-signatory, Dr Debbie Pain of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and I had been influenced by the results of a symposium in the USA in 2008 which looked at these issues. American wildlife and health experts were concerned about the impacts of lead levels in game meat entering the human and wildlife food chains.
Lead is a poison, which is why we have removed it from petrol, paint, water pipes etc. The impacts of lead are particularly strong on young children and the growing foetus but there is no ‘safe’ lead level for humans of any age – the less lead you ingest the better.
When an animal is shot with a lead bullet or lead shot then as the ammunition passes through the animal’s flesh tiny fragments of lead are shed, and spread through the tissues. If the animal is eaten by a scavenging bird or mammal then it ingests the lead. If it is eaten by you or me in a restaurant then we ingest it. We’re talking tiny fragments here, not the pellets themselves.
For most meat you buy in a restaurant or supermarket maximum lead levels are set by law and are at 100 parts per billion (wet weight). For game meat, which is normally shot with lead, inexplicably no such limits are set. Studies have shown that about half of the game meat (eg pheasant, rabbit, pigeon, grouse) bought in supermarkets or from game dealers is above the legal level for beef, pork, chicken etc. Some samples, around 10 per cent, are more than ten times that level, and a few are 100 times the level that would be legal in most meat.
Since we wrote our original letter health authorities have become more concerned about the impacts of lead generally, and of ingestion of lead in game meat in particular, and in 2012 the Food Standards Agency strengthened its advice in response to the growing evidence.
The simple solution to the problem is to ban the use of lead ammunition and switch to existing non-toxic alternatives such as steel, bismuth etc. This is strongly opposed by the shooting industry who have come up with a long list of arguments about why it’s not fair, not practicable and not what they want. I’m no expert on ballistics but the fact that Denmark phased out all lead ammunition a decade and a half ago, and yet Danish wildfowlers and hunters still carry their guns into the countryside for a day’s sport, suggests to me that the problems are more to do with conservatism than anything else.
Recently, California joined a few other US states in banning lead bullets on human health, but also California Condor health grounds. Lead poisoning from ingestion is that main break to the increase in the Condor population.
The Lead Ammunition Group which was set up over five years ago has written its report and it will be sent to Defra ministers soon after the general election. Banning lead ammunition will be an easy win for the incoming administration.