Lead: Much Ado About Nothing?

Recently, the conservation and the shooting worlds have found themselves, once again, at loggerheads. Over the years there have been many arguments and disagreements, but this quarrel focuses on something which is very much central to the shooting world; lead ammunition. Petitions have been signed, research has been both confirmed and denied and it seems the only thing that will be agreed on, is to disagree. It is very easy in a situation such as this to make your decision without assessing the facts first. We choose our stance and we stick to, never to be moved. Such strong beliefs are admirable, as long as they have a decent argument to support them.

So what are the two sides? Well, the first argument has been put forward by conservation societies who state that lead is poisonous and therefore using it to shoot is dangerous. Spent lead shots that are left behind in the environment pose a threat as they can be directly ingested by wild birds, or through the consumption of other birds that have been shot by the pellets. Cases of lead poisoning in wild birds such as swans, geese and ducks are numerous and some figures claim that up to 10,000 birds die of lead poisoning annually. Already there are restrictions to lead shots being used over wetlands, so there is evidence for it being a significant problem, if it was not, such restrictions would not be implemented. However, it is not just wildlife at threat, as lead fragments, which are too small to remove, can end up in shot game, which is then consumed by humans.



So, what about the case for lead ammunition? Well, it is well known that lead is a useful element and is used in many everyday things, including batteries. Those for lead, also point out that though lead may be poisonous, many things can be poisonous when consumed in excessive amounts. In addition, the shooting industry is worth £1.6 billion to the British economy and a ban on lead would severely impact shooting practices and therefore the rural economy. Furthermore, most British gun makers produce guns that would be incompatible with many of the alternatives that have been suggested for lead shots, with some costing up to ten times more. The control of agricultural pests would also be impacted with a ban on lead and negatively effect these industries. The alternative shots of tungsten, bismuth and steel have all been suggested. However, tungsten again is a natural metal, but it has be proven that it is toxic to humans. Bismuth is less dense and less effective than lead and can cost up to five times more. Steel is also less effective and therefore larger pellets have to be made, which do not fit the size of standard British game guns.

It is a lot to take in, but these points are the main arguments being sprouted from both sides. Everyone has to make their own decisions based on the facts.



So what do we actually know about lead? Well, it is a naturally occurring element, and we are exposed to it in the natural environment. Although lead can change forms from inorganic to organic, allowing it to move around the environment, it does not break down. Therefore, once it enters a system, it does not leave. Lead in the body will remain and continue to accumulate and this is why it is perceived as a problem. Lead can impact every organ in the body as well as impacting systems such as the nervous system. Neuropathy, organ diseases and poor brain development in children can all be consequences of ingesting too much lead.

It has been argued that lead is also present in other foods. True, mussels, mushrooms and countless others do contain small amounts of lead, but the consumption of these foods does have health benefits. Mushrooms increase vitamin D, improve the immune system and improve general nutrition levels. Mussels are a good source of many vitamins and amino acids and they can improve brain function and reduce inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. We have to accept, eating fragments of a lead shot will not give you such benefits. Also, many studies concerning lead in some foods often conclude that ‘consumption of these foods cannot be considered as a toxicological risk concerning lead.’ In addition, the argument against tungsten as an alternative is rather odd, because it is that is can be poisonous. Like lead, surely?

Now, the case for lead claims that ‘anything is dangerous is high levels.’ One report stated that too much fat in our diet can be dangerous, leading to heart disease and diabetes, but we do not ‘ban’ this. Indeed. Though, I think it would be fair to argue that this is a little different. Fat is an essential nutrient to the human body and if we have too little fat we can see ill effects such as poor vitamin absorption, imbalance of nutrients and even increased risk of diseases such as depression. The difference with lead is that we do not need it in our diets, in fact, the less you have in your body the better.



Of course, poisoning depends on the amount of lead we eat. It has been argued that one would have to eat a very large amount of game meat on regular occasion to see any ill effects from lead. However, in relation to such claims, the Lead Education Group cites the case of a 9 year old boy who developed acute appendicitis, 4 days after eating the meat of one pheasant, killed by a shot gun. In addition, research has also shown that up to 500 gun shot fragments have been found in the appendices of those who regularly eat wild game.

However, it could be argued that if one wants to take the risk and eat game that has been shot with lead, this is entirely up to the individual. But what about our wildlife? They have no choice in consuming this element, because they do not know what they are ingesting and the subsequent risks associated with it. We have already seen the beneficial effects of banning lead shooting over certain wetland areas and these effects have been echoed in many countries. However, other species are still at threat from lead bullets. Raptors that ingest the meat of birds shot with pellets are at risk, along with other avian and mammalian scavengers.



Although those who do not hunt may find it difficult to be sympathetic to problems specific to shooting, such as difficulties with bullet size and gun barrels, we can (or should try) understand that if you are a hunter, the costs associated with a new shot would be irritating and very difficult to accommodate. I am not a shooter and I admit, I’m not a fan, but as a rower, I would not be overly pleased if someone said we needed new boats, because the fibreglass on our current ones damaged waterways. But if the effects of it were potentially damaging to wildlife and humans, we would have to make an adjustment. If we are aware of the risks of something, we should try to reduce them as best we can, not flat out deny them. Banning the lead shot would be a huge adjustment in the shooting industry of course, but it does not mean the end of it. In Denmark, the use of the lead shot has been banned since 1996, but shooting still continues. In fact, one shooter and biologist, Niels Kanstrup has praised the ban in his country, stating:

“I think it’s (shooting) a fair and sustainable way to use natural resources, but we can’t have it connected with spreading poisonous heavy metals in nature.”


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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