Lead shot poisoning game meat

Eating the meat of birds and animals shot with lead ammunition can be more harmful than previously expected, say scientists.

A study led by the UK’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the Spanish Research Institute on Cynegetic Resources says that lead levels in some cooked game meat exceeds the safety levels set by the EU.

It can be particularly harmful for children or those consuming game on a regular basis.

Another finding was that meat cooked or pickled with vinegar was more dangerous still, as exposure to the acid breaks down the lead into forms that are more easily absorbed by the human digestive system.

Even when the shot is carefully removed from the carcasses before cooking, fragments are likely to remain embedded in the meat.

The study looked at six types of bird hunted in the UK – red partridge, pheasant, wood pigeon, grouse, woodcock and mallard.

Depending on the species and type of recipe, 20% to almost 90% of samples had lead levels above safe limits.

Woodcock topped the league in terms of bird most likely to be contaminated to dangerous levels.

Similar results can be expected in game animals, claims co-author Rafael Mateo.

“In big game hunting, and contrary to what is believed, the lead bullets also fragment,” said Mateo, who, with his team, has confirmed the presence of high concentrations of lead in samples of deer and wild boar from Spain’s Sierra Madrona.

“Mining sites in the region can influence the results, but they alone do not explain the extremely high levels detected in some samples.”

While research funded by a bird conservation charities might be expected to be damning of hunting, it does not conclude that the lead contamination means hunting should stop.

Instead, it suggests using different metals and alloys in shot.

“Lead pellets and bullets have started to be substituted by others made from different materials,” it says.

“For small game hunting steel ammunition already exists, especially recommended for use in humid areas (where there is little risk of ricochet), and in cases when shooting into the air is required, like in driven partridge shoots.

“When you have to aim at the ground – to shoot rabbits and hares, for example, the alternative is pellets made from tungsten or bismuth in different compounds and alloys with metals or plastics.

“For big game hunting, some countries like Germany and the United States have already started to use copper bullets. This material hardly fragments and is not as toxic as lead.”

Sam Bond

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