Lead Poisoning for All! It's Not Just Flint Anymore

A version of this article first appeared on Rural America In These Times in October 2017.

Bullets fragmenting in National Park Service test.
Once politicians promised a chicken in every pot. Not anymore. The Trump administration is promising Americans lead poisoning in every blood stream—human and animal. This is despite the nation long banning lead in paint, water pipes and gasoline. Lead poisoning created tragic damage to human health and a national scandal in Flint, Michigan. How soon we forget.

As I recently reported in Rural America In These Times, on Ryan Zinke’s first day in office as Secretary of the Interior, he rescinded restrictions on use of lead-based ammunition and fishing-line sinkers on lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Though the restriction was limited (phasing out the toxin on just certain federal lands by 2022), the NRA predictably described it as “an attack on our hunting heritage.” It was also first put into effect by President Obama, all of whose legacy is under attack by the current administration—just because.

Each year, hunters and fishermen pump tens of thousands of tons of lead into the ecosystem and food chain, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. You read that right: tons, not pounds. As a result, as many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from subsequent lead poisoning, according to the Center.

Golden eagle eating carrion in San Benito Cty, CA.
Tribes work to remedy the problems created. At the Zuni Pueblo eagle sanctuary, an ER for eagles in the New Mexico desert, some of the birds cared for there have lead-related nervous-system damage. This is a consequence of consuming the carcasses of animals that have been shot with lead pellets, as seen at left, or of being shot themselves. In August 2017, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, in South Dakota, celebrated the release into the wild of an eagle that a zoo had rehabilitated with the help of lead-testing equipment donated by the tribe.

Humans are at risk as well. The toxin is on the menu when hunters, fishermen and their friends and families eat game shot with lead-based ammunition or consume fish from contaminated waters. “[Lead] can degrade a person’s vascular, renal, nervous and reproductive systems,” with children especially vulnerable to the effects, say wildlife biologists at the Yurok Tribe. They say the heavy metal can’t be entirely eliminated when cleaning the game, because lead-based bullets explode into fragments as small as a mote of dust when they strike a target (see ballistic-test photo above). 

What if scientists discover that lead isn’t so bad? the NRA asks in a press release. Top scientists scoffed at this, calling lead “one of the most-well-studied” of poisons, “with toxic effects…in humans and wildlife, even at very low exposure levels.”

With tens of thousands of tons of lead bombarding the environment each year, we all have a shot at lead poisoning.

C. Stephanie Woodard; photos courtesy National Park Service. More images of damage from lead-based ammunition can be found here

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