This week from the 21st to the 27th October is the international lead poisoning prevention week, which focuses on eliminating lead paint. The week is organised and promoted by various United Nations agencies including UN Environment and the World Health Organisation. You can read more about the initiative here and here. The World Health Organisation lists lead as one of ten chemicals of major public concern, alongside arsenic, mercury and asbestos
Lead poisoning from paint is not a major issue in the UK as its use has been strictly controlled (essentially banned), since the 1990s (and earlier). Lead has also been removed from petrol, water-pipes and legislation was introduced to stop its use in fishing weights in 1987 – more than 30 years ago. One of the biggest sources of lead being deposited into the UK environment is via the use of lead ammunition in shooting. Its use has been controlled over wetlands since 1999 (although there are differences in the timing of the implementation and the detail of the restrictions in the different UK home nations). We also know that the legislation has not been adhered to and mortality of wildfowl continues, see here. Existing legislation does not cover the use of lead ammunition in pheasant, partridge or grouse shooting, and it has been estimated that in the region of 5000 tonnes of lead shot are deposited in the UK environment via this route. Some of that toxic lead may end up on your dinner plate too! This is avoidable as alternatives are available.
You can get an excellent summary of the issue of lead ammunition and its effects on birds as well as how Danish hunters have transitioned to non-lead alternatives without any impact on their activities, by watching this 6minute video: the invisible killer.
As part of the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife we are calling for a ban on the use of lead ammunition in the UK. You can read the Manifesto in full via Chris Packham’s website. There is an illustrated version and a fully referenced version that includes links to key references on the issue of lead poisoning. Here is the full text from the Ministry of Lead Ammunition which I’m delighted to be part of……
In the first century CE Dioscorides – a physician in Nero’s army – observed that “Lead makes the mind give way”.
The toxicity of lead has been understood for millennia. As we further our scientific understanding of lead toxicity we have discovered that even low levels of lead are toxic to humans and other animals. In the UK, lead was banned from use in petrol, paint and water pipes decades ago, with most other uses strictly controlled. Lead ammunition (gunshot and bullets) remains a glaring and largely unregulated exception. In England, even the limited restrictions from 1999 banning certain uses of lead gunshot are largely ignored. At least 5000 tonnes of lead ammunition are deposited into the UK environment annually, accumulating a toxic legacy and causing suffering and death to large numbers of birds. As well as polluting the environment, lead ammunition often fragments on hitting an animal, leaving tiny lead particles in the animal’s tissues. These fragments can then be eaten by predatory or scavenging birds or by people eating the game meat.
Waterbirds (like ducks, swans and geese) and terrestrial gamebirds (like pheasants and partridges) eat spent lead gunshot directly, mistakenly for grit or food, whereas predatory or scavenging birds (like eagles or kites) eat ammunition or lead fragments in the flesh of injured or dead game animals. Once absorbed, lead can paralyse muscles, affect behaviour and reproduction, and when enough is absorbed it kills. An estimated 50,000-100,000 wildfowl die of lead poisoning each winter in the UK along with many more terrestrial birds, and lead likely affects the populations of some threatened species, like the Common Pochard. People who frequently eat game shot with lead ammunition are also at risk, especially children and pregnant women. Numerous scientific studies have identified an association between increased levels of lead in the blood and reduced IQ in children. The European Food Safety Authority concluded that “efforts should continue to reduce lead exposure from all sources”.
This poisoning is unnecessary. Effective alternatives to lead ammunition already exist. Denmark banned the use of lead gunshot for all shooting (game and targets) as long ago as 1996. It is time for the UK to catch up and stop lead ammunition from polluting the environment and poisoning wildlife and people. A total ban on the use of lead ammunition will benefit wildlife, people and the environment. To encourage this action:
- Government to put the UK on the front foot by introducing a ban on the sale, possession and use of all lead ammunition across the UK.
- Food Standards Agency and National Health Service to undertake a public awareness campaign to promote the health risks from consumption of game shot with lead, especially to pregnant women and young children.
- Individuals, NGOs and Statutory Agencies that manage land to ensure that any shooting that takes place on their land uses non-toxic ammunition.
- Statutory Agencies to ensure that these restrictions can be readily monitored and enforced and that penalties are appropriate, including the withdrawal of firearms licences for those who flout the law.
- Government to support the current European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposal to ban the use of lead gunshot in wetlands and support future restrictions in the use of lead ammunition for all shooting.
- Restaurateurs and celebrity chefs to ask suppliers to provide only game that has been shot with non-toxic ammunition and promote this in recipes and restaurants.
- Concerned members of the public to write to their MPs about the need to ban lead ammunition.
- Supermarkets that sell game shot with lead ammunition to be boycotted with explanation.
- Concerned shooters to use non-toxic ammunition and to encourage fellow shooters to do likewise.
- Campaigns mounted focussing on shooting organisations, asking them to publicise the evidence and the need for a switch to non-toxic ammunition.