With the fall deer season just around the corner, Craven County hunters will soon be heading to the woods and tree stands while venison lovers are busy cleaning out their freezers in preparation for the annual bounty.
But residents with a taste for venison may want to take note of several recent studies that raise concerns about the dangers of lead contaminants found in game meat. Studies show that fragments of lead ammunition can pose a health risk to both humans and scavenging animals.
While lead was banned in waterfowl ammunition in the US in 1991, the majority of people who hunt other game species use lead ammunition. On impact, a lead bullet can break into tiny microparticles too small to be seen with the naked eye or felt when eating.
Multiple studies by the National Library of Medicine have found a link between game taken with lead ammunition and blood lead spikes.
A 2018 study estimated that traditional foods such as elk and venison provide up to 73 percent of dietary lead intake for Indigenous people in Ontario, Canada.
Another study conducted in Greenland identified seasonal fluctuations in blood lead levels, with peaks during months when game meat consumption is highest and declines during months of lower consumption.
Concerns were also raised about venison being donated to local charities.
The North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Deer Donation Program provides hunter-harvested venison to local food banks and shelters. While no similar data was collected in North Carolina, a 2008 study conducted in Wisconsin that analyzed 200 packages of venison from food pantries found 15 percent lead. The average lead level in contaminated meat is 160 parts per million.
The study estimated that 81 percent of children who consumed just two meals of donated venison per month would have blood lead levels above 10 micrograms/deciliter. Levels above 5 micrograms/deciliter are considered elevated and are associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lower IQ.
Lead exposure can endanger adults and unborn children
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, especially for children and fetuses. According to information from the Center for Disease Control, lead is absorbed into the bones, blood and tissues and stored there. Pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child, which can damage the developing baby’s nervous system.
According to the CDC, even low-level lead exposure in developing babies has been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and infertility in both men and women.
In 2008, a CDC test of 736 people in six North Dakota towns found that those who ate game had 50 percent more lead in their blood than those who didn’t. Lead exposure is highest among people who consume not only venison but also birds and other game.
The study prompted the North Dakota Departments of Health, Agriculture and Game and Fish to advise food pantries not to distribute or use donated ground venison due to the discovery of lead fragment contamination.
Lead-contaminated deer meat can also pose a danger to other animals.
Tonya Weil, the founder of Wild at Heart Wildlife Sanctuary in Richlands, estimated that 68 percent of the eagles that come to the preserve suffer some degree of lead poisoning from ingesting scavenged deer carcasses.
“We took X-rays of processed venison that someone donated to us, and the whole thing was just sprinkled with a little bit of lead,” Weil said.
Many sporting groups continue to oppose restrictions on lead ammunition, arguing that evidence of danger is unclear.
In a press release, Ted Novin, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said, “The use of traditional ammunition does not pose a risk to human health.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently proposing to ban lead ammunition and fishing gear on certain federal lands by 2026. The proposal includes a new study on the impact of lead ammunition and fishing gear on wildlife refuges.
In a released statement, Todd Adkins, vice president of government affairs for the Sportsmen’s Alliance, said the proposed lead ban “opens the barn door” to banning lead ammunition and ammunition on all federal lands.
“This provides a legal basis for radical animal rights and environmental groups to sue the federal government to enforce additional lead bans,” the statement said.
Gun hunting for deer in southeastern North Carolina begins October 15 and runs through January 2, 2023. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5.8 percent of North Carolinians have paid hunting licenses for a total of 603,995. The gross cost of all hunting licenses in the state is about $10.6 million.
Reporter Todd Wetherington can be reached by email at [email protected] Please consider supporting local journalism by signing up for a digital subscription.