Letter to the Editor – Toxic Lead In Hunting Ammunition: The Time Has Come To Phase It Out

William J. Snape, III
Senior Counsel, Center for Biological Diversity
Fellow, American University Law School

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USA –-(Ammoland.com)-Obviously, there is a lot of discussion right now about changes to our gun laws as a result of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy.

This article is not about gun control or the Second Amendment, but rather about removing toxic materials from hunting ammunition and fishing tackle.

For the past decade there has been debate over regulation or restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunting activities that cause lead exposure and poisoning for birds and other wildlife. The effectiveness, cost and availability of copper and other non-lead hunting ammunition has dramatically improved in recent years. Increasing numbers of hunters are switching to non-lead rounds because they are better for hunting, better for wildlife, and safer for hunters and their families.

Almost three hundred groups from around the country have joined the Center for Biological Diversity’s call to finally phase lead out of lead hunting ammunition. For the sake of people, wildlife and a lead-free environment, it’s time to make this happen.

Let’s be clear about what this is, and isn’t, about. This has nothing to do with restricting hunting or the Second Amendment. Our organization has hunters and non-hunters as members. Many hunting groups are promoting non-lead ammunition. The legal effort to restrict lead in hunting ammunition and fishing equipment has everything to do with getting toxic lead out of our environment and nothing to do with restrictions on hunting and fishing. Nothing.

There are good reasons we took lead out of gasoline, plumbing, house paints and children’s toys! Lead is an extremely toxic material that is dangerous at almost any level to all life forms.

Fortunately, there are proven, effective alternatives to lead for nearly every caliber of ammunition used in hunting. A recent scientific article, Lead-Free Hunting Rifle Ammunition: Product Availability, Price, Effectiveness, and Role in Global Wildlife Conservation, found that:

  • Lead-free bullets are made in 35 calibers and 51 rifle cartridge designations;
  • 37 companies distribute lead-free bullets internationally;
  • There is no major difference in the retail price of equivalent lead-free and lead-core ammunition for most popular calibers;
  • Lead-free ammunition has set bench-mark standards for accuracy, lethality and safety.

(Vernon George Thomas, Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 4 January 2013).

What are the costs of not switching to non-toxic ammunition?
Every year, roughly 14,000 tons of lead bullets and shot are deposited into the environment from hunting in uplands. Hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies have documented that many bird species and other wildlife are poisoned after scavenging carrion contaminated with lead ammunition fragments in un-retrieved game or gut piles, or from ingesting spent lead shot pellets that are mistaken for grit. A prime example is the epidemic of bald and golden eagle lead poisonings, which spike each year corresponding to fall hunting season; or the extremely endangered California condor, whose lack of recovery has been explicitly linked to lead ingestion. We wisely ended use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting more than two decades ago due to high collateral killing of ducks and bald eagles from the lead. It’s time to do the same for other hunting activities that put toxic lead into the food chain.

Of more personal concern to hunters is increasing information about health impact to humans from hunting with lead ammo. We know that when lead is ingested it attacks organs and many different body systems. Lead is especially dangerous to fetuses and young children, causing damage to the brain and nervous system, and measurably decreasing IQs. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Monograph on Health Effects of Low-Level Lead (National Toxicology Program, June 2012).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is consensus among medical researchers that there is no safe level of lead exposure in young children. Numerous studies link elevated lead levels with aggression, destructive and delinquent behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, and criminal behavior. See, e.g., John Paul Wright et al., Association of Prenatal and Childhood Blood Lead Concentrations with Criminal Arrests in Early Adulthood, PLOS Medicine (May 2008). Several studies using radiographs have also demonstrated to hunters that the deer, elk or other game they shoot with lead ammo and feed their families is tainted with dangerous toxic lead fragments. States such as South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan and Indiana have all concluded that pregnant women and children should not eat venison harvested with lead bullets because of health dangers. This is also a real concern for many food bank programs that serve shot venison.

So how do we move forward so that we are not needlessly poisoning our wildlife or jeopardizing our own health, while allowing hunters and anglers to continue to hunt and fish?
Fortunately, we have a good model for change in California, where the strongly pro-hunting state wildlife commission and the state legislature in 2007 restricted the use of lead ammunition for all hunting activities in southern and central California out of concern over continued lead poisoning of endangered condors. Hunters in the areas with restrictions on lead ammunition have transitioned seamlessly to hunting with nontoxic bullets. There has been no decrease in game tags or hunting activity since the state requirements for non-lead hunting went into effect in 2008.

Nationally, the most logical initial step would be for the Environmental Protection Agency to compile all available information on the environmental and health impacts of lead ammunition and sinkers, as well as details on viable alternatives, into one comprehensive report that the public could comment upon and participate in. The EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should then begin the process of phasing out lead under the Toxic Substances Control Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other relevant existing laws.

What is not needed is for the NRA and NSSF to ask for or get waivers of long-standing environmental laws like they did during the recent Sportsmen’s Bill (S. 3525) debate in the 112th Congress. That legislation went down in flames precisely because the NRA balked at reasonable compromise language regarding lead ammunition.

The common sense answer to our current conundrum is to phase out toxic lead, adopt the readily available alternatives, and fully embrace life on Earth – from our children and our mothers to our many majestic forms of wildlife. It’s the right thing to do.

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It is true that lead is an extremely toxic material, so it is important to find a way to reduce lead poisoning.

Red Ryder

This one's such a no-brainer, if the hunting community can't get behind it, makes me wonder if we're lead-poisoned and can't think.

Even our sport can change.

Rob Morse

I'm confused by the article and what it does not say. I thought blood tests of hunters revealed they had LOWER levels of lead than the general population. That says a lot to me.

Jay W

Elemental lead is not poisonous. Compare it to iron- a person can be poisoned from taking too many iron-enriched vitamins but your drinking water can be full of elemental iron and all it does is make your clothes dingy and stain your sink.


Lead is a natural element, as long as children don't eat it they are at no risk. The 14,000 tons of lead shot each year they refer to is mostly shot into backstops at shooting ranges and recycled. Lead is protected under the 2nd Amendment, it is and always will be used for ammunition. Copper is much more expensive and harder than lead ammunition. The only thing I can agree with is lead in gasoline that was put into the air by car and truck exhaust fumes everywhere.


Okay smarta– , what will this do to reloaders who recycle tons of lead just reloading ammunition , what are we supposed use , we as individuals can't afford to make these fancy alloys , and buying them would negate the savings of reloading .


While I don't think governmental action is needed, I agree that lead is highly toxic to humans and animals. Exercise wise decisions and good stewardship. in particular, make sure that the children in your life are protected from lead exposure.


For another take on this issue the NSSF has produced a fact sheet on the supposed health and environmental risks associated with lead ammo. Suffice it to say that the scientific evidence (and i use that word loosely) used to justify baning lead-based ammunition is spotty at best. Just learning how poorly a study was conducted in North Dakota is quite helpful.

In closing I aplaud ammoland for running editorials, even ones such as this, that sometimes go against the grain because it encourages the reader to seek out the truth.


I'm not positive but I think I read on AmmoLand that it was proven lead has no effect on wildlife. I Can't remember the article to I guess I'll go on a witch hunt to find it.


Tred Law

Shame on AmmoLand for giving CBD any voice, as polite and reasonable as is the argument presented by Mr Snape, we know that the CBD is an anti hunting organization who's end goal is to ban all hunting. It has been shown again and again that all their data is based on junk science produced by people who's goal is to manufacture fake data to forward there agenda. Anytime you see the words "common sense" and "reasonable compromise" you know right away this an organization that cant speak the truth about their real agenda. You can feel the detest for… Read more »

Don Schaf

Where do you think the lead comes from? It's not man-made or come from space. It's already in the land, it comes from the land, and all we're doing is returning it to the land whenever we use it as ammunition. You have noble ideas but your thinking is flawed.