Tester: Don't Get the (Toxic) Lead Out

by Dan Rohlf

In an impressive effort to demonstrate that crafting bad environmental legislation knows no partisan boundaries, Democratic Senator John Tester of  Montana – who recently spearheaded a successful effort to remove wolves from the endangered species list through a budget maneuver – last month introduced legislation to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Several environmental organizations last year petitioned EPA to mandate the use of non-lead bullets and shot, noting that traditional bullets used by hunters spread lead fragments throughout the environment, poisoning a wide variety of non-target birds and other wildlife, including critically imperiled species such as California condors.

Tester claims that his legislation would protect hunters when “Washington DC’s rules get in the way of common sense.” But it’s actually the status quo that’s a nonsensical health hazard for hunters and their friends and families, particularly children who eat game shot with lead-laden ammunition. It’s not as simple as removing the bullet from the carcass, because bullets fragment, contaminating the animal meat with lead. Believed by historians to have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire – which effectively poisoned itself with lead in plumbing and food containers -- the metal causes a wide variety of harm to people, including decreased IQ in children, nervous system impairment, impacts to hearing and sight, and kidney disease.   In one study demonstrating the extent of human exposure from lead bullets, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention tested 736 people, mostly adults, in six North Dakota cities and found that those who ate wild game had 50 percent more lead in their blood than those who did not eat it.

Birds are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, with millions of them injured or killed each year as a result of lead exposure. California condors, rescued from the brink of extinction 30 years ago and reintroduced into portions of their former range in California and Arizona, are often killed or injured due to high lead poisoning because they feed exclusively on carrion, often animals killed – but either discarded or not retrieved – by sport hunters or landowners and professional hunters  controlling feral pigs or other invasive species. While the state of California has banned most uses of lead ammunition within condors’ range, the birds continue to suffer from lead poisoning, likely due to inadequate implementation and enforcement of these state restrictions.  Arizona encourages hunters to use non-lead ammunition within condor habitat, but the voluntary program has made little headway in protecting the birds.

After reviewing extensive evidence, a blue ribbon panel assembled by the American Ornithologists’ Union called re-establishment of viable wild condor populations “improbable” primarily due to the birds’ ongoing exposure to lead. The panel called for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “work with ammunition manufacturers, state game agencies, and shooting and hunting organizations to spearhead an effort to replace lead ammunition with non-lead alternative ammunitions nationally or at least within the potential range of the condor.”

EPA turned them down, rejecting a petition to ban use of lead in ammunition, on the grounds that a provision regarding ammunition in TSCA already precludes the agency from enacting a ban. The petitioners filed suit in federal court challenging the agency’s decision. Tester's bill would simply say outright that lead bullets may not be regulated. Despite overwhelming evidence of the hazards, the National Rifle Association and some hunting groups vociferously oppose bans on lead ammunition.

Overheated rhetoric about lead bans restricting hunting notwithstanding, there are many alternatives to lead ammunition that are as accurate and effective.

Senator Tester, who is locked in a contentious battle for re-election, is using his efforts to unprotect wolves and allow continued use of toxic lead ammunition to appeal to his relatively conservative Montana constituency.  However, the very people who may vote for him – along with California condors and scores of other species of birds and wildlife – will pay the price for his political gains as lead from spent ammunition continues to spread needless death and injury throughout the American landscape.  Congress ought to support or at least get out of the way of public health protections, not try to block them.

(This post contains some excerpts from an op-ed I published in the Portland  Oregonian ).



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