The Toxicity of Lead

Nov 25, 2019

Are you doing everything you can to keep toxic heavy metals away from your family and out of the environment? In this week’s Wildlife Matters the Masked Biologist takes aim at the use of lead ammunition.

I don’t understand it. I simply don’t understand how we as a society are still allowing the unrestricted use of lead in ammunition. As a biologist, I have long known about the danger of lead poisoning to wildlife, especially waterfowl. As an informed responsible person, I have known about the effects of lead on the human body far longer.

Humans have low tolerance for lead, a toxic heavy metal. At low levels, lead exposures in developing babies and small children have a negative affect on behavior and intelligence. At high levels, it can cause anemia, weakness, kidney failure, brain damage, and ultimately death. We have known about this for a very long time. In Europe, people used to think the tomato was poisonous before 1900 because artistocrats would get sick and die after eating them. we now know they were getting sick from the lead leaching out of the pewter plates, not from the tomatoes.

Wisconsin actually has a historic tie to lead. In the early 1800s, we saw a lead mine boom in southwestern Wisconsin, and thousands of miners from around the country and overseas came to places like Mineral Point and New Diggings to work in the lead mines. Wisconsin was a national leader in lead production two hundred years ago. Through time, humans have used lead because it is heavy, malleable, and fairly easy to extract. That makes it useful and affordable. In fact, this is probably why we still make our bullets and pellets out of lead today. We used to use lead in other items, too, but that use has been outlawed to protect human health and safety. Lead water supply piping was starting to be outlawed in some city codes already in the 1920s. Paint that contained lead followed suit. Both of these were still technically legal to use well into the 1970s and 80s, but have now been completely phased out and are illegal in most uses. Lead was added to gasoline to make engines run faster and quieter until a gradual phase-out in the 1970s and 80s resulted in such low availability and useage that it was finally outlawed in 1996.

Now, when you talk to an average hunter, they will tell you that they don’t eat the lead. if they bite into a BB in their small game, they spit it out. when they shoot big game like deer, they cut around the wound channel and make sure to remove the bullet, so their game is fine. it is safe to eat. That is simply not true. Lead has the ability to liquify somewhat on impact and work its way into muscle tissue in miniscule amounts. There have been studies on this; lead lights up like Christmas lights in an Xray, and it is easy to see the lead in carcasses examined postmortem.

Besides, you don’t need to physically eat lead for it to enter your system. In the tomato example, people were eating the fruit, not the plate. Likely the acid from the tomato or maybe the etching of silverware allowed them to consume trace amounts. When the Federal government phased out and banned the use of lead in gasoline, it wasn’t because people were drinking the gasoline. It was banned as part of the landmark clean air act because lead was being atomized by the internal combustion engines and put into the atmosphere. According to the EPA, regulator efforts such as these decreased lead levels in the air by 98% between 1980 and 2014.

I didn’t even get a chance to get to the negative impacts of lead on birds, the bioaccumulation, deposition in soil, the unnecessary deaths of everything from woodcock to eagles. That will have to wait for a future episode.

There are excellent nontoxic options out there for rifle ammunition, shotgun shells and fishing tackle. I should know because that’s all I use, and all my boys use. Encourage those around you who hunt and fish to make the switch and care for the people and wildlife around them.