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Levels of lead in venison sparking debate

| Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008

On the eve of Pennsylvania's firearms deer season -- and similar seasons in states throughout the country -- one of the tools most commonly used to kill deer is under inspection.

Two recently-completed studies suggest that people who eat deer killed with lead bullets are ingesting that substance into their blood streams.

The danger is not necessarily great for anyone, according to health officials. Nor are all groups of people who eat venison equally at risk.

But because high levels of lead in the body can cause everything from nerve disorders and learning disabilities to high blood pressure and cataracts, the studies have generated debate, some of it rancorous, and impacted venison donation programs in a couple of states.

The lead issue sprang up over the winter, after a random sampling of the venison donated to food banks in Minnesota. It found that 26 percent of 1,000 pounds of ground meat sampled had lead in it; 1 percent of 400 pounds of whole muscle cuts had lead.

State health officials pulled it all from food banks.

As a result, that state's Department of Natural Resources began studying the impact of lead bullets on venison. Work began in April; results were announced in October.

The agency's wildlife research scientist, Marrett Grund, a former deer biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and its big game coordinator, Lou Cornicelli, did the research. They shot five kinds of .308-caliber rifle bullets, shotgun slugs, and muzzleloader bullets into sheep carcasses -- which mimic deer in size and weight -- broadside behind the front shoulder at 50 meters, then measured the amount of lead on the meat.

Each bullet type left fragments behind, which wasn't surprising, Cornicelli said. But their location was.

"One thing is that these fragments went a heck of a lot further than we expected," he said. "We didn't expect those particles to travel as fast or move as far as they did."

Lead -- found as particles and as dust, Grund said -- was discovered as far as 14 inches from wound channels. It might have spread even farther, but that was the maximum distance that could be measured, he added.

Some bullets left more lead behind than others. Bigger, slower moving shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets left fewer fragments than high-powered rifle bullets, for example. Copper bullets left no lead.

Any lead that was found was almost impossible to remove, though. Researchers tried washing it away, but that proved counterproductive.

"If you rinse the venison before eating it, you actually take the lead found in the densest concentrations and spread it across the rest of the carcass. It actually worsens the problem rather than minimizes it, which is the opposite of what I expected," Grund said.

The study's findings prompted states to react, or overreact, in some minds.

Minnesota's venison donation program, for example, is no longer taking donations of ground venison. Only whole cuts are being accepted. North Dakota's program has gone ever further, accepting only meat from deer that have been killed with arrows.

Those involved with Pennsylvania's Hunters Sharing the Harvest believe that's just ridiculous.

John Plowman of Harrisburg helps coordinate the program. It celebrated a landmark last year, collecting more than 100,000 pounds of venison for the first time. All of that meat was ground and made into one- or two-pound packages and distributed to 3,000-plus organizations that feed the hungry.

Plowman said the program will continue to operate as it has -- despite the recent studies -- because hunters like himself have been eating lead bullet-killed deer for decades without problems.

"It's a non-issue, as far as we're concerned," Plowman said. "It is not an issue here, and has not been one, and I don't see anything on the horizon that indicates it's going to become one.

"No one is putting up any red flags saying we're poisoning ourselves."

That's largely true, with one qualifier.

In light of Minnesota's study, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health this summer collected blood samples from 738 residents of that state. Some were hunters who had eaten a lot of venison, others were hunters who had eaten just a bit, and others were non-hunters who had eaten no venison.

Each had their blood tested for the presence of lead.

It's true that "people who ate a lot of wild game tended to have higher lead levels than those who ate little or none," said Dr. Steve Pickard, an epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department of Health.

The more recently someone had eaten a deer harvested with a lead bullet, the higher the lead levels in their blood, too.

But all but six of the study participants -- including Pickard himself, a non-hunter who didn't eat venison -- had some lead in their blood. And no one had so much lead that it was a real health concern, he said.

"For the average hunter who harvests a deer or two a year, and who eats one or two meals of venison a week, this is not going to be a big deal," Pickard said. "The amount of lead is just too small."

Lead paint -- now illegal, but very prevalent in houses built before 1970 -- is still a far bigger source of lead contamination than bullets, he added.

But health officials are warning some people to stay away from venison anyway. North Dakota's official recommendation is that children younger than 6 and pregnant women avoid eating meat from deer killed with lead bullets, Pickard added.

"There is no benchmark for lead in children. It's all bad," Pickard said. "As for adult hunters and their families, it's a matter of assessing their risk and deciding whether that's tolerable from their point of view."

That recommendation could change in the future if additional needed research is done, he added. His study did not contain enough children to know whether bullet-killed venison is a problem for them, he said. His study could not determine whether deer processed at a commercial shop contained more or less lead than those butchered at home either. And no one knows exactly why ground meat is more likely to contain lead that whole cuts.

So in the meantime, it's up to hunters to decide what to shoot and what to eat, Grund said.

There are no documented cases of anyone getting ill from eating a deer that's been killed with a lead bullet, despite the fact that there are annually "millions of pounds of venison consumed all across the country," he said. But with 8- and 5-year-old daughters at home, he's switching to copper bullets anyway.

"A lot of people, if they're driving three blocks, don't put their seat belt on. But the same people, if they're going to drive all the way across the state, four or five hours, they wear it. They manage their risk a little differently," Grund said. "It's the same thing here. I think the moral of the story is it's all about managing your risk of exposure. At this point in time, it's just a matter of personal choice."

"I'm making the switch," Cornicelli added. "A lot of people I'm working with are making the switch. I think a fair number of people are looking at it.

"But everyone should make the decision that suits them and then go deer hunting."

Human Society takes lead

The one group that has taken the lead bullet study and called for the most sweeping changes is the Humane Society of the United States.

The group has called for a nationwide ban on lead ammunition as a result of the North Dakota study.

"If there was any doubt about the urgent need to rid our country of lead ammunition, here is proof positive," said Andrew Page, senior director of the Wildlife Abuse Campaign for The HSUS, in a prepared statement. "Extremist hunters have long contaminated watersheds and habitat, dooming animals to slow and painful deaths. Now that hunters know their actions are directly putting themselves and other people at risk, there are no more excuses to use the ammo that just keeps on killing."

Groups representing sportsmen and manufacturers have said the call is just a back-door attack on hunting.

Rick Story, senior vice president for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, said the Humane Society "should stop hyperventilating" and recognize that the report shows how little danger there is in connection with eating deer taken with lead bullets. The Humane Society is just trying to push sportsmen toward more expensive bullets -- premium copper ones can cost two to three times as much as lead ones -- so as to limit their opportunities to buy gear and get outside, he said.

"It should come as no surprise that America's leading opponent of hunting, fishing and trapping has mischaracterized the findings of the CDC report. It will resort to any means necessary to deny the rights of sportsmen," Story said.

Likewise, the National Shooting Sports Foundation said attempts to ban lead ammunition are driven by an animal rights agenda, not science.

"These politically driven groups understand that while an outright ban on hunting would be nearly impossible to achieve, dismantling the culture of hunting one step at a time is a realistic goal," reads an NSSF press release. "Banning lead ammunition is the first step of this larger political mission.

"We can only hope that with the conclusive CDC results concerning the safety of traditional ammunition, legislatures across the country will listen to science and not anti-hunting radicals."

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