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From lead to copper bullets: Why some say hunters should make the switch

With another hunting season here, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is...
With another hunting season here, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is encouraging hunters to consider switching to non-lead based ammunition.(Staff)
Updated: Sep. 13, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s no secret that lead is a toxic material. With another hunting season kicking off in the state, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has been making some announcements encouraging people to consider hunting with non-lead ammunition because of the health risks of consuming any amount of lead.

The solution provided by the state health department is for hunters to switch to copper bullets.

Mary Schneider is the lead surveillance program manager in the state Section of Epidemiology. She said that lead bullets leave fragments of lead in game meat upon the bullet making contact with the animal. This is only part of all the types of possible lead exposure.

Schneider said that when it comes to adults, the vast majority of elevated lead levels is a result of occupational hazards where people are exposed to lead products on a daily basis.

“Most of our testing and data is focused on children, because children are the most vulnerable to the impacts of lead,” Schneider said.

She provided the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It shows that in 2018, 17.6% of children under the age of 6 in the nation were tested for lead, and 5.8% of Alaskan children under 6 were tested.

Schneider said the CDC standard for elevated lead levels in the blood is five micrograms per deciliter. She explained that is five millionths of a gram for about every half a cup of blood — so even a little makes a difference she said.

Of those children tested, 2.6% of children under 6 years old nationwide had elevated lead levels, and 1.3% of the Alaska children had elevated lead levels.

“It affects their developing brains, it can lead to reduced IQs, decreased academic performance, and behavioral problems,” Schneider said about the risks of lead exposure in children.

While there are health risks associated with lead exposure, there’s also an environmental impact surrounding this topic, said Chad Thomas.

Thomas is the non-lead outreach coordinator with the Institute of Wildlife Studies based in California. He’s been hunting across the Lower 48 since he was 16. He said the organization has been working with hunting clubs and groups to discuss the benefits of non-lead ammunition since 2007.

Thomas said the institute does a lot of work with wildlife biologists including the affects of lead exposure to raptors — which include species like condors and bald eagles which he said are sensitive to the effects of lead in their system.

He explained that scavengers are exposed to lead when they eat what’s left behind after hunters dress their kill in the field and leave remnants like the guts and other unwanted parts.

“It can be various, from inhibiting motor skills, which can affect their ability to evade predators, their ability to dodge vehicles as they’re scavenging on the side of the road, to power lines,” Thomas said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists confirmed that while fish make up a large part of their diet, bald eagles and other species in Alaska do scavenge for food as well.

Alaska’s News Source went to several local gun shops in Anchorage and reached out to a number of hunting groups and organizations to discuss the messaging from the health department, who declined to be formally interviewed.

Overall, hunters and gun retailers weren’t very concerned about the health risks associated with lead fragments in game meat. In the midst of a nationwide ammunition shortage brought on by the pandemic, several of these people said it’s not realistic for hunters to make the switch because hunters are buying any kind of ammunition they can find.

However, some acknowledged that copper ammunition is superior. Albeit, it’s a premium ammunition that comes for a premium price.

Thomas confirmed that copper ammunition is more expensive. However, he pointed out that when hunters prepare to take an animal they take on a few costs.

“The gas, the tags, the time off from work, the beer for after the hunt, the processing fees, the fancy scope on the fancy gun,” he said. “We’re talking about minuscule and statistically insignificant amount of increasing cost.”

X-rays provided by the Institute of Wildlife Studies showing the difference between copper...
X-rays provided by the Institute of Wildlife Studies showing the difference between copper bullets (left) and lead bullets (right) when making lethal impact with an animal. These are x-rays of hogs.(Institute of Wildlife Studies)

He also said copper bullets perform better and don’t leave fragmented pieces in the animal during the kill.

“It leaves a single wound channel. So you have reduced meat loss,” he said. “You have an exit hole, so you have double blood trailing. It keeps all of it’s weight so you have that nice deep penetration. So actually, for larger game — especially where you all are at where you’re hunting moose — that is vital.”

It’s not uncommon for gun owners and hunters to hold onto boxes of ammunition between hunting trips and sessions at the gun range. Thomas recommended that hunters considering the switch to non-lead use their lead bullets at the range to practice technique. However, before leaving the range, he said they should dial their scopes in with a few copper bullets.

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