Lead Bullet Fragments in Wild Game
Information for Hunters and Consumers
Wild game provides a great, locally grown, sustainable source of healthy, lean protein. However, the harvest of wild game using lead-based ammunition presents certain health considerations.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported the results of a study to determine how bullets commonly used for deer hunting may fragment. They discovered that small lead particles were found up to 18 inches from the wound channel, farther than previously thought, and that the amount of lead fragmentation varied greatly with bullet type.
A risk assessment conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Health found the potential for substantially elevated blood lead levels in children consuming venison harvested with lead bullets.
A field study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced some surprising results. The CDC found that North Dakota residents who consumed wild game shot with lead ammunition had a small but statistically significant increase in blood lead levels compared to residents that did not consume wild game. However, the same study also found that the average study participant had a lower lead level than the overall population average in the United States.
To date, there have not been any cases of human illnesses linked to lead particles in hunter-harvested venison. Nevertheless, the potential for exposure to lead from the consumption of game can be an important consideration, particularly for children or women who are nursing, pregnant, or considering becoming pregnant. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that has negative effects on the cardiovascular system and brain. It can have physiological effects on humans at levels that do not cause noticeable signs of sickness. Lead is particularly damaging to brain development. The effect of lead on adults is largely dependent upon the frequency and level of exposure. For most adult hunters who harvest one or two deer each season to share with family and friends, the risk of lead poisoning is low and can be reduced further by following the recommendations listed here.
Other Important Findings from Research
- Ground venison contains more lead fragments than whole cuts. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture tested 1,029 packages of commercially ground venison and found 26 percent of those packages contained lead fragments. They tested 209 packages of whole muscle cuts and found 2 percent contained lead fragments. Test results from a limited sample of hunters who processed venison at home showed similar results.
- Other game harvested with lead bullets or pellets may also be a source of exposure to lead. Studies have shown that game birds harvested with lead shotgun shells had elevated levels of lead associated with pellet wound channels.
- Lead fragments can travel a considerable distance from the wound channel. Although on the average, bullet fragments were found 5 inches from the bullet channel, some were up to 18 inches away.
- Most of the lead fragments in meat are too small to see, feel, or sense when chewing.
Recommendations for Hunters and Consumers of Venison
- Bullet selection: In general, rapid-expansion bullets fragment more than controlled expansion bullets. More fragmentation results in wider distribution of lead particles in meat. Exposure to lead can be avoided completely by using non-lead bullets (e.g., copper bullets).
- Firearm type: Research found that animals shot with shotguns (slugs) or muzzleloaders (round ball and conical) contained less lead than those shot with rifles.
- Shot placement: Bullets that strike the lethal area (heart/lungs) are less likely to fragment than bullets that strike more heavily boned areas. Careful shot selection and skilled marksmanship can reduce lead fragmentation into edible portions of the deer.
- Meat processing: Trim liberally around wound channels, discarding meat that is bruised, discolored, or contains hair, dirt, or bone fragments. Although lead particles can be found up to 18 inches from the wound channel, the majority of lead particles are located in the immediate vicinity of the channel and associated damaged tissues.
- Carcass rinsing: Research in Minnesota showed that rinsing a carcass was of questionable value. Although rinsing reduced the level of lead in tissue samples near the exit hole, they also found that rinsing resulted in spreading lead contamination from highly concentrated areas to other areas of the carcass.
- Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, nursing mothers, and parents of children under the age of 6 should carefully consider the potential risks from the consumption of game harvested with lead ammunition and may want to consult with their physician. For instance, steaks and chops may be a better choice than ground venison.
The Connecticut DEEP is providing this information to hunters and others so that they can make a fact-based, informed decision on the hunting and consumption of wild game. This information will be provided to processors of wild game and operators of food pantries in Connecticut. The website will be updated as new information becomes available. If you would like additional information concerning the health risks of exposure to lead, contact the Connecticut Department of Public Health or call 860-509-7740.