In the UK and many other countries lead has been removed from water pipes, paint, children’s toys and petrol. Is it now time to end its use in gunshot and bullets? The Sustainable Food Trust has joined forces with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to call for the use of lead in ammunition to be phased out.

Lead has been used by humans for over 5,000 years. The Romans added it to wine because it sweetens the taste, and some historians have argued this contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. The Victorians used it to bring piped water to houses. How much this contributed to poor health isn’t known, with life expectancy being low and childhood mortality high anyway.

It wasn’t until 1887, however, when medical authorities in the US diagnosed lead poisoning in children that our awareness of its toxic properties began to increase. Today it is widely recognised that lead is highly toxic even at very low levels, and progressive action, especially in developed countries, has greatly reduced our exposure. Worldwide the picture is less encouraging. The World Health Organization estimates that lead exposure causes almost 150,000 deaths per year, while childhood exposure to lead contributes to around 600,000 cases of intellectual disability each year.

Despite previous calls for action and some additional regulation, every year in the UK 5,000 tonnes of lead ammunition is used (military use not included), with 2,000 tonnes of this fired at wildlife. According to academic research brought together at the Oxford Lead Symposium this raises two distinct issues.

The threat to wildlife

Each of the cartridges used to shoot wild birds contains a large number of small lead balls and because these spread out as they go through the air many of them will fall to the ground, even if the bird is hit and killed. The amount progressively accumulates year by year, and where shooting takes place on land visited by wildfowl, the birds can mistake it for seeds or the grit they need to break down food for digestion.

Research by the WWT found that 1 in 4 migratory swans examined by post-mortem had died of lead poisoning and it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 swans, geese and ducks are killed this way in the UK every year, with up to a million such deaths across Europe as a whole.

The use of lead shot over or near wetlands is already banned and shooting organisations have repeatedly called on their members to respect this, but 45% of the respondents to a British Association of Shooting and Conservation survey admitted that they did not always comply with this and a study undertaken in 2013 found that 77% of the ducks sampled had been killed with lead shot.

In addition to the direct threat to wildfowl which will die one at a time out of sight, there is also concern that these dead birds will be eaten by predatory species, such as birds of prey, and this could have an indirect effect on them too.

The threat to human health

In relation to human health, the amount of lead present in game shot with lead bullets is not believed to be a cause of death in humans. However, it has been estimated that for families that eat game twice a week the amount of lead in the meat could cause a small reduction in the IQ of young children.

The issues here do not just relate to wildfowl but also include pheasants, partridge, grouse, deer, rabbits, hares and the many other species that can be shot.

Most surprisingly of all, it is now known that simply removing lead shot from the meat does not solve the problem, since particles of lead too small to be seen by the eye break off and are left in the meat. Clearly, also meat from wildfowl that have already ingested lead shot could contain additional lead as a result.

It must be a cause of concern that while a maximum residue limit of 100 ppb has been set for lead in beef, lamb and other farmed meat, no such limits have been set for game birds, and the level of testing is very low with only a handful of birds tested each year.

Calling for change

Addressing this issue head on, the WWT, RSPB, and SFT issued a joint press release to coincide with the publication of the Oxford Lead Symposium report, calling for the replacement of lead ammunition with non-toxic alternatives and a complete phase out of the use of lead ammunition by 2017.

A number of countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium, have already banned the use of lead shot in ammunition. In Denmark, lead shot has been banned since 1996 and non-toxic alternatives are widespread and popular.

As a Danish hunter, interviewed for a WWT video puts it:

We know that lead is very poisonous, and it is not good for nature in any way, it is not good for humans either, and as we now know, from 20 years of steel [shot] experience in Denmark and other countries, that steel is just as efficient as lead. I see absolutely no reason, no arguments, no excuse whatsoever, to keep pouring lead into nature… I don’t see any excuses whatsoever to keep using lead pellets

Why UK shooting organisations are reluctant to change to non-toxic alternatives

Ask most shooters in the UK what they think about non-toxic alternatives to lead ammunition and they will quickly tell you that it’s not as good at killing birds as lead shot and that there is therefore a welfare issue, as more birds will be winged but not killed outright. How true that is has not been independently established, but a key issue for the industry is that while cartridges containing iron shot are as cheap as lead, they cannot be used in older guns – some of which are highly valued within the industry – or at least not without a costly modification.

A lead alternative cartridges review by Shooting UK in 2011 claimed that iron shot is not as good as lead, but the review was anecdotal and did not appear to be based on controlled tests.

However, this review also concluded that alternatives made from an alloy of nickel, tungsten and iron, are actually better at killing birds than lead. The problem with these however is that they are very much more expensive at about £1.50 per cartridge, compared with as little as 15p for the cheapest lead shot cartridges when bought in large quantities. But other alternatives exist, including ones containing bismuth which are considered to be excellent and are also more reasonably priced.

The situation in England

Lead

Although there are some restrictions on the use of lead shot, with regulations banning its use over water, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and for the shooting of ducks, geese, coot and moorhen, enforcement is weak or non-existent.

Despite resistance to change, organisations like the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) are aware of concerns about lead shot and have called for their members to comply with current regulations or face the possibility of losing lead shot altogether.

Clearly the industry will need time to adjust but it seems probable, were lead shot to be phased out, that the price of alternative cartridges would come down and that development by manufacturers would probably result in further alternatives becoming available as well.

Photograph: James Mitchell

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