One of Gerald Durrell’s books about the Jersey Zoological Park covers a frustrating medical mystery that occurred at the zoo one year. Abruptly, for no reason they could identify, the waterfowl started dying. They would be healthy, and then they would not be, and then they died. With some necropsies, Durrell and the zoo’s vet determined the cause: lead shot. The birds were somehow finding lead and consuming it, probably thinking it was the ideal size for their crops. With some hunting, they discovered a pile of decaying parcels of lead shot on the bottom of a lake, possibility abandoned during the Second World War. They cleaned up, the birds got healthy, and the crisis was averted.
The story stuck with me, because lead continues to be a significant environmental pollutant. Covering this issue at Grist, Bruce Dorminey notes how quickly lead can kill waterfowl:
The first indication of lead poisoning in birds is lethargy. But by the time the swans start showing lead’s effects, it’s too late to save them, said University of Washington wildlife biologist Mike Smith. Their life span after ingestion is only about three weeks.
Historical sources of lead included a wide variety of products because people were fans of using it in just about everything until they understood how toxic it is. Today, lead use is more limited; you cannot, for example, slap some lead-based paint onto your walls, and people generally seem to agree that lead does not belong in children’s toys, although some manufacturers have apparently not gotten the memo on this particular topic. One continuing source of lead in the environment is the same one Durrell struggled with: ammunition. Dorminey notes that despite some restrictions on the use of lead in the manufacture of bullets, it has not been banned entirely.
While the Environmental Protection Agency has been petitioned to ban all lead in ammunition, it is still legal to use lead shot to hunt pheasants and shoot doves, and for skeet and trap target ranges. So lead shot is still being deposited in various habitats (as are lead sinkers from fishing gear).
It’s not just birds who suffer from lead in the environment; people get sick as well, and so do other animals, who may take weeks or months to die from lead poisoning. Eliminating the use of lead in ammunition would be a significant environmental victory. It’s not the only current source of lead in the environment, but it is a source, and it is one that seems like it should be easy to address. However, the matter has been complicated by the involvement of groups like the National Rifle Association, which sternly resist any activity they see as limiting gun rights. Last year, the EPA caved on the issue under pressure, backing off from regulations on the grounds that they didn’t have the jurisdiction. Let me repeat that: The EPA decided it did not have the jurisdiction to pass regulations to improve environmental health and safety. If the Environmental Protection Agency can’t protect the environment, who can?
Hunters are among the people behind the initiative to switch to lead-free ammunition. They see the impacts of lead poisoning on the natural environment first hand, and are well aware that alternatives are available. Green ammunition is available not just for hunting, but law enforcement and other activities; even the military uses green ammo1. This is a situation where many people who own and fire guns are ready to switch, the ammunition industry is set up to switch, and advocacy groups for gun owners are resisting a lead ban.
People may argue that a lead ban should not be necessary, that people will switch over on their own once they understand the issues and environmentally friendly ammunition is readily available. Banning lead in ammunition is not just about trying to protect the environment, though, it also sends a clear message. Lead is dangerous, it should not be freely floating in the environment, and any regulatory steps we can take to reduce the presence of lead are good ones. These regulations also reinforce each other, because people may reasonably ask why lead should be banned in other things if people can continue to fire lead bullets.
Switching to more environmentally friendly components in the production of a wide variety of goods is a step in a positive direction. This isn’t a situation where a ban would make it functionally impossible to access something. Lead-free ammunition is available, people are producing it, and people are asking for it. There are some concerns about affordability that need to be addressed, and some critics believe lead-free ammunition may not be as effective, which clearly demonstrates the need for a campaign to promote not just the environmentally-friendly nature, but also its functionality. Banning the use of lead in bullets would not infringe on the ability to own, use, and fire guns. The NRA seems convinced that this is some kind of slippery slope, a back door to anti-gun people succeeding in limiting gun ownership. In no small part this is probably because the environmental movement tends to include a lot of prominent liberals, and prominent liberals often support limitations on gun ownership, so it’s a logical connection to be make.
This despite the fact that the people supporting switching to green ammunition, and supporting lead bans, are gun owners. Hunters, one of the NRA’s core constituencies, the people even many anti-gun people seem to agree should be allowed to own guns, are asking for a more environmentally responsible era of gun use. The military is down with green ammunition. It is definitely high time to get the lead out, especially since, much though the NRA seems loath to admit it, the interests of many of its members dovetail nicely with the environmental movement. Hunters want the environment to be healthy, because otherwise they have nothing to hunt!
- For our current purposes, we won’t get into the hazardous substances the military also uses in munitions production, including depleted uranium for armour-penetrating rounds. ↩