A coalition of one hundred environmental organizations has petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate lead in ammunition as a toxic substance. The groups argue that more than 75 species, including the California condor and bald eagle, are harmed when they feed on the carcasses of animals killed by lead bullets and shot.
Hunters who eat meat from animals killed with lead ammunition also face a risk of lead poisoning, the groups say, because tiny fragments of ammunition migrate from the original wound site into more distant tissue. Research has found that lead poisoning can cripple motor coordination and cause digestive problems, blindness, and death.
"The EPA has taken steps to address toxic lead in almost every available product from gasoline to plumbing to toys," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading the campaign. "The one source of lead that is still causing significant lead exposure is hunting ammunition and fishing tackle."
The groups filed the petition last month. The EPA has until mid May to determine whether leaded ammunition poses a significant health or environmental risk and whether regulation is the "least burdensome" way to address it. If it agrees with the petition's conclusions, it will begin a rule-making process that will include public hearings and comments. Otherwise, the petitioners could sue to force the EPA to regulate lead in ammunition.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a similar petition in 2010, but the agency said it didn't have the authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate ammunition. The center filed a lawsuit, but the case was thrown out because the statute of limitations on challenging the EPA's ruling had expired.
Gun-rights groups are fighting the petition and pushing Congress to approve the Sportsmen's Heritage Act, which passed the House Natural Resources Committee in February. Among other things, the bill would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to explicitly bar the EPA from regulating the manufacture or sale of ammunition.
Pro-gun groups argue that scientific evidence linking lead ammunition to wildlife effects is shaky. For instance, raptor populations have been increasing steadily, despite the continued use of lead ammunition, Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms and ammunitions industry, wrote in an e-mail. "This is about choice," Novin wrote. "Absent sound science demonstrating a wildlife population impact, sportsmen and women should be free to choose for themselves the type of ammunition they shoot."
Several studies have implicated lead poisoning in deaths of the endangered California condor. A study published earlier this year found lead poisoning was the primary cause of death in juvenile and adult condors from 1992 to 2009. A 2010 study analyzed three to four months of lead levels using condor feathers and found much higher and more frequent exposures than blood draws suggested, said Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist at UC Santa Cruz, who conducted the study.
Still other work tied the chemical composition of lead found in poisoned birds with that of ammunition. Research on other animals also links ammunition and lead poisoning. Turkey vultures and ravens show higher blood-lead levels during the hunting season. One case report has documented lead poisoning from ammunition in a mountain lion, Finkelstein said. "By no means is this isolated to condors."
Calculating lead's toll is difficult, because deaths aren't tracked for most animals, Miller said. Animals often die of other causes, such as flying into electrical wires or starving, but autopsies reveal impaired motor coordination or digestion due to lead poisoning, he added.
California passed a ban on lead ammunition in the California condor habitat in 2008, and a large study is under way to determine whether the ban has had an impact. Hunters are still free to use lead ammunition in other areas of the state.
The petitioners don't want to stop hunting, which provides food for scavenging birds like the condors; they just want to make it safer for humans and wildlife, Miller said.
"There are other unleaded alternatives for bullets, shot, hunting, and fishing tackle that are either nontoxic or less toxic that could easily be substituted without impinging on anybody's ability to hunt or fish," he said.