Lead into Darkness?

BY MARK CRUDGINGTON

Have the British shooting public been led into a miasma of confusion that may lead to the end of the shooting of live quarry as we know it? In modern cancel culture the opportunity to “ban” time-tested methods to assuage a “green” agenda seems increasingly common.

In the case of lead in ammunition there have been reports produced for years on the subject yet when you delve into them there appears to be no scientific questioning or counter argument to the “lead is bad” theories put forward. The 9 shooting organisations that signed the declaration to phase out lead in ammunition over a 5-year period, without seemingly consulting their members and despite at least one organisation being a science-based entity, seem to have been drawn into this cancel culture in order, one might presume, to try and win favour from the non-shooting public.   

Having never suffered to my knowledge from any negative effects as a result of shooting, casting lead bullets and fishing weights as well as eating much of the game I have shot over many decades, I was perplexed that all of a sudden in 2020 this effective, time-proven and most humane projectile to effect clean “kills” was being vilified. So I started looking into what had sparked this panic reaction and what facts could be found regarding lead in ammunition. And I discovered that actual facts are hard to discover, certainly where metallic lead, such as that used in ammunition, was concerned.

My original interest was sparked by an interview I heard on BBC Radio 4 whilst working at my bench. The  Hon Professor of Biological Sciences who was being interviewed disclosed that at the start of their career they had studied the variations in elevated blood lead levels of Canada Geese in Hyde Park in London. The source of this lead contamination was not sporting ammunition, but the compounds of lead deposited in the exhaust fumes from cars burning “leaded” petrol.  Since that time, this scientist has decided that lead in ammunition should be removed, possibly because they now work for an organisation that is not pro shooting.

My concerns are about both the recent moves to phase out lead in game shooting cartridges and that some supermarkets have decided not to sell any game which has been shot with lead ammunition.

Having contacted the Customer Services people at one such supermarket and enquired why they had adopted this policy; this was their answer:

Thank you again for your email Mark. We have stopped using lead shots as lead is a neurotoxin with no agreed safe levels of exposure. We will be using alternative such as steel or bismuth.”

I also asked my preferred Shooting organisation, The National Gamekeepers Organisation, and received a remarkably similar reply in which they stated that lead was a neurotoxin with no safe known level of human exposure.

Both these responses confused me since my family and many friends have apparently been exposed to this risk over the last 55+ years and none of us has ever suffered any symptoms of neurotoxicity. I hunted about and discovered that Lead is classed as a “Heavy Metal” and “Neurotoxin”, as are Aluminium, Iron (steel shot is made of malleable iron) Bismuth and very many other  common metals, all with varying degrees of toxicity.

I decided to see what Government agencies said on the matter. The Food Standards Agency stated on their web site:

“Lead is a naturally occurring [my emphasis] chemical contaminant that is present in soil, water and the atmosphere, including as the result of human activities in the past. Due to its presence in the environment, lead is likely to occur at low levels in a wide range of foods including tea. Plants including tea plants can uptake lead via their roots and by deposition on foliage. This is not a new risk and people are exposed to lead in their diet from many sources. It is not possible to avoid exposure to lead from food.”

Wow.

Not possible to avoid in food?

It seems nearly all vegetables, salads etc contain lead in various amounts as do many fish, shellfish etc. This may be as a result of lead compounds created in nature and by man over the centuries being present. Maybe the retailers that will not sell game shot with lead because of their views about  lead’s toxicity might want to consider all foods that they are at present happy to sell, which contain varying levels of lead? Compounds such as Lead (II) Bromide and Lead(II) Chloride are by-products of burning Tetraethyl lead in petrol which are capable of getting into waterways and the soil. It seems Tetraethyllead, a volatile and highly poisonous compound, was added to petrol from the 1920s until the year 2000. 3cc’s per (US) gallon are reported as having been added; that could mean with daily sales in the UK in 1990 of around 90 million litres that 71,330 litres of Tetraethyl lead could have been burnt daily in the UK over a possible 80-year period, although there would have been changes in volumes consumed historically. From what I could determine it seems that with 1 volumetric litre of lead bromide reportedly weighing 6.66 Kgs, it could mean that up to 475,035 kilos of lead bromide (475 metric tonnes or roughly 15 million shotgun cartridges) might have been spread over the UK every day over a period of 80 years. Both  Lead (II)  Bromide and Chloride, which are listed as highly poisonous and capable of passing the “blood-brain “barrier”,  are soluble in hydrochloric acid as well as partially soluble in water and listed as extremely poisonous to aquatic environments.

I then asked my local MP if he could provide a list of how many people suffer from lead poisoning every year in the UK. He was frank in saying there was not much information available but was very helpful and from the House of Commons library provided this table:

Based on my enquiries there is no evidence to say any of these patients were admitted because they had eaten game shot with lead, and it seems that most if not all were those who worked directly in lead-related industries. Indeed, it is not clear if anyone in the UK has ever been diagnosed with elevated levels of lead in their blood as a result of eating game shot with lead projectiles. What is clear though is that the numbers involved are tiny compared to the UK annual hospitalisation number of 17.1 million admissions in NHS Hospitals in 2018-19. My research suggested therefore that these organic and inorganic compounds of lead were much more of a potential hazard than the metallic lead itself. For instance in certain industrial situations highly corrosive compounds are contained in Steel containers lined with lead as the substance would eat through the steel vessel but reacts very little with the lead. I can find no published investigations into the reaction of steel shot or particles of steel shot and its reaction with dilute hydrochloric acid in our digestive system.

There are of course natural lead compounds such as “Galena”, which is the natural mineral form of lead(II) sulphide (PbS) and the most common ore from which lead is smelted, however despite its extensive distribution it seems not to pose a direct hazard to human health. In its normal solid state, metallic lead is not much affected by our hydrochloric stomach acid and cannot be absorbed through the skin or by breathing. From what I can deduce, it seems that it is the compounds of lead which can more easily enter our bodies as many are soluble in acid, such as our stomach acid and that of other animals and birds – this solution can then pass into the blood causing severe damage. It seems, from what I can find, that it is not possible for metallic lead to do this.

Common sense would indicate that if metallic lead is as dangerous as stated by some there would be huge areas in the UK uninhabitable by humans because of the high levels of Galena present (for example the Yorkshire Moors, the Borders, places such as “Lead Hills”, Cornwall and mid Wales). It would also seem logical that if metallic lead is so harmful, we would not be allowed to grow food in any of those areas either, which is not the case. What I also discovered was that in compound form, we humans have been using some of the stated compounds as additives to drink over the last 2000 years. Lead Acetate or “Sweet Lead” / “Sugar Lead” was only stopped as an additive to wine in the 1980s – this compound has been blamed, amongst other things, for the fall of the Roman Empire! Lead Acetate was finally removed as a major component of Grecian hair colouring products in 2015. Could it be that some of these lead compounds, introduced by man through industrial processes, have worked their way through the food chain to affect the higher forms, such as wildfowl, game birds, raptors and other scavengers in a similar way to DDT ‘s effects felt at the top of the insectivore food chain, for example in raptors?

By a stroke of luck, I found the following information about Norway:

In the 1990s the Norwegian government banned the use of lead in sporting shotgun ammunition and after a resubmission from the Norwegian shooting organisation the Government overturned that ban in 2015. Part of the submission from the shooting organisation stated that the use of isotopic tests, which could differentiate lead used in ammunition from other sources of lead, had determined that the elevated toxicity discovered in certain birds and animals could not be linked to lead from ammunition. The report also stated that the Norwegian army regularly monitor the water run-off from their rifle ranges, the butts of which contain many thousands of kilos of lead bullets, and there was no detectable environmental hazard .

The Scandinavians are clearly some way ahead of us in the UK. Indeed my favourite quote is that from the Norwegian parliament when they overturned a 10-year-old ban on lead ammunition for hunting:

“The Parliament found the extreme warnings from the lead ban lobby exaggerated and not trustworthy.”

During my investigation I also discovered a report from a Swedish organisation which claimed that white-tailed eagle deaths in Germany, blamed on the ingestion of lead ammunition by those birds from corpses they had scavenged, was highly questionable. It is alleged that Wild boar, a prey animal for these eagles, carry a very heavy lead burden potentially as a result of the way boar “eat “soil when rooting up their food, presumably ingesting inorganic and organic lead compounds as a result of human industrial practices. Boar in Germany, it was claimed, also inhabit areas of former heavy industry with much soil contamination – some of which are  lead compounds, which are avoided by humans.

All of this information was starting to “cloud the water” on both the supermarket response and that of the National Gamekeepers Association.

Is it metallic lead, such as spent shotgun pellets, or the residue of industrial lead compounds present in the environment that is the cause of the “threat from lead” ?

In the same vein, if metallic lead was as dangerous to human health as is promoted by some, logic would suggest, to me at least, that the powers that be would be removing all lead from the roofs of church buildings, Grade 1 listed Palaces, stately homes and presumably all lead waterproofing in the form of flashings on houses ancient and modern, as.water passing over these large areas of exposed lead as well as the many miles of lead piping still in use for both gas and water in the UK, would surely have a more toxic impact on the environment than the amount of sporting lead shot historically and scattered over the countryside?

Metallic lead and the vast majority of both organic and inorganic lead compounds are reported as not water soluble or barely so (acidic water can react slightly with lead over a long exposure), however there are many such compounds which are readily soluble in various acids including hydrochloric acid. It seems that these compounds, if dissolved in the stomach and small intestines of birds, animals and humans are then easily absorbed into the bloodstream and can possibly cross the “ blood brain “ barrier which can prove fatal.

 It is an enormous surprise that Wild Justice and 9 of our shooting organisations appear to have joined forces in this “debate” over lead shot . Even Chris Packham is making a point of saying lead should be removed from ammunition. Why are these people, such as Mr Packham, who in the main are anti-shooting, trying to get lead removed from ammunition when surely what they really want is all ammunition removed? The lack of questioning of Wild justice’s position by those 9 organisations that want to maintain our traditions doesn’t make much sense at all.

My conclusion is that the British public need some definitive answers to some serious questions. These questions need to be debated openly before any decision to phase out or ban the most effective and humane projectile used for sporting purposes is taken.

 1.       Demonstrate conclusively that eating game meat that has been shot with lead ammunition is harmful to humans and justifies the stopping of selling such meat.

2.       Evidence that the alternatives to lead ammunition are as ballistically efficient and produce humane kills through the same equipment and under the same conditions as equivalent lead ammunition.

3.       Demonstrate that if accidentally ingested, lead shot is more toxic than steel shot for those who eat game meat.

4.       Prove that wildfowl, birds and animals are in fact harmed by ingesting spent lead ammunition, as opposed to other lead compounds found in the environment. This can today be achieved by isotopic testing of the lead in such animal’s livers, brains and blood.

5.       Examine the extent of current and historical lead pollution in the UK caused by lead compounds vs metallic lead, and their relative effects upon the health and wellbeing of the UK population in general.

What I have written above show my conclusions from the information I have managed to discover, however I hope others may have more and better-informed questions to pose in order to find the truth about this complicated subject. All of us need to be properly informed.

References:

  1. https://www.leadinammunition.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/5a-Larsen.pdf
  2. https://www.leadinammunition.com/independent-studies-046/
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j21k
  4. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/hospital-admitted-patient-care-activity/2018-19

Mark Crudgington  is a 2nd generation gunmaker, at large in Wiltshire.  His company George Gibbs Ltd is nearing its 200th birthday. A passionate shot, angler, deer stalker and natural sceptic.