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Lead in venison: a personal view

12/2/2008
Possible lead exposure from consuming venison is a popular topic this year among deer hunters. Steve Bowman

Both personally, as a hunter who enjoys consuming the deer I kill, and in my position as editor of Whitetails Unlimited Magazine, I have been very interested in the lead in venison story.

I have read everything about it I can get my hands on, and have formed my own independent opinion, based on what I've found.

My friends and relatives know I pay close attention to things like this, and they have been calling me, asking about what they should do this hunting season. Frankly, there isn't one clear answer, and because of that, I'm not comfortable telling them what they should do.

So I've been telling them what I'm going to do, and why — and that they should draw their own conclusions.

I'm sharing those conclusions here, but remember that I'm not telling anyone what they should do, just what I'm going to do this hunting season.

First I'll start with the what and then the why.

The first conclusion I've made is that even if I change nothing this year, everything will still be fine. No one anywhere has reported any symptoms of lead poisoning from eating venison, and lead levels in the blood of hunters are not elevated.

Second, based on the very conservative level of risk that I'm willing to accept, I am going to change a few things this year:

  • I'm going to spend more time at the range, to make sure that my first bullet will hit exactly where I want it to, to ensure a one-shot kill. I work hard to know my range and skill level, and I pass on any shots having a low chance of success.

  • I will discard more meat around the wound channel. Proper bullet placement and using one bullet will reduce how much meat needs to be discarded. Tiny bits of lead have been found a foot away from the bullet path in some test carcasses.

  • I will not rely on washing the carcass to eliminate the lead. Tests have indicated that washing just moves the lead around, rather than actually washing it away.

  • I will not feed venison to any friend or relative of mine under the age of 6, or a woman who is pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or nursing. I have no hesitation in eating it myself, or serving it to anyone else I care about. Young children, babies and fetuses are at the most risk from lead, and it just seems prudent to try to eliminate all the risk you can. This may be overcautious, but there is nothing lost by being over careful in this situation.

I'm going to keep reading everything I can about the topic, and if something changes, I will re-evaluate my position. Ignoring an actual problem is just as brainless as overreacting to a nonexistent problem. I face risk every time I get in my car, and yet I still drive, but I do so in a manner that reduces my risk as much as possible. Hunting, and eating what I shoot, however, is no different.

What I've decided to do this hunting season is based on the level of risk that I am willing to accept. A couple of people I know want to be more safe than me, and have asked how to reduce the risk closer to zero.

Here is what I've told them:

  • Take up bowhunting.

  • Use a muzzleloader or shotgun. Tests using muzzleloaders and shotgun slugs report much less lead fragmentation. I believe that this is because slugs and muzzleloaders travel much slower than rifle bullets, and fragment less on impact.

  • Switch to a bullet that does not contain lead. Or use a bonded bullet, and combine that bullet type with a caliber that moves more slowly, reducing the likelihood of fragmentation.

Hunting is a wonderful experience, and consuming what I take is part of that experience. There is no need to put myself, or those I care for, at risk. But by being informed and taking some simple, prudent precautions, I can reduce that risk to a level with which I am completely comfortable.

Again, these are my personal conclusions, based on my research, and this is simply what I am going to do this year. It is incumbent on all hunters to make every aspect of their hunting experience safe for themselves and those around them. Do your research, have fun hunting, and enjoy your venison!

Jeff Davis of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., is editor of Whitetails Unlimited Magazine.