The man who sounded the alarm about lead ammunition and public health

Photo of lead fragments in a deer carcass courtesy The Scavenger Hunt.

It was in a darkened room lit only by eerie light of the X-ray that William Cornatzer first suspected that he had been poisoning his children for years, along with his wife and himself.

Cornazter, a successful North Dakota dermatologist, had taught himself to hunt in his youth with both guns and falcons. And it was the latter interest that ultimately brought him to this 2008 meeting of the Peregrine Fund board of directors. A friend had asked him to consider joining the Peregrine Fund’s Board of Directors to support the organization’s Archives of Falconry. He didn't have any prior association with the Peregrine Fund. It was just coincidence that another item on the agenda was the dangers of lead ammunition to the California Condor, illustrated by this X-ray showing the dispersal of lead fragments throughout the body of a deer hunted with lead ammunition.

“I was stunned to think that there was so much lead throughout the meat,” Cornatzer recalled. He went on to explain that as an ethical hunter, he had always learned not to waste any part of the animal, bringing him to the realization that he and his family had likely consumed tiny lead fragments from the lead ammunition he frequently used.

“I was taught a certain philosophy about hunting, and that was that you don’t waste anything from a kill, that you use every scrap of meat that you can,” he said. “I looked at this and realized that I’ve been feeding lead to my kids, my wife, and myself for years.”

The dangers of lead ammunition to birds and other wildlife had long been documented. Scavenging species such as the California Condor consume lead left behind in gut piles or carcasses that hunters leave in the field – often with the best intentions. Golden eagles and other predators can consume lead when they ingest prey that has picked up lead. Some birds, such and ducks and Mourning Doves, will simply eat lead off the ground. It was concerns about ducks that prompted the Federal Government to require nonlead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991.

People had wondered if the lead ammunition in venison and game birds ever found its way into the people who hunted it, but no one had really forced the issue. That is, until the presentation Cornatzer saw sparked his curiosity.

Soon after that Peregrine Fund meeting, Cornatzer contacted friends at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, who agreed to let him run CT scans of 100 packages of venison donated by hunters to a local food bank. He expected to find lead in two or three samples– instead he found lead in more than half. On the basis of this study, authorities discarded the donated meat.

“My son and I spent an hour trying to pull the lead out of one package, but you can’t – it’s just dust,” he said. “I’m a conservationist and I’m concerned about the wildlife implications of lead ammunition. But I’m more concerned about humans. Not only shouldn’t we give meat with lead in it to poor people, but this should be something that concerns hunters.”

An X-ray from a separate study showing lead fragments in a package of venison.

In late March 2008, the North Dakota departments of Health, Agriculture, and Game and Fish advised food pantries across the state not to distribute or use donated ground venison because of the discovery of contamination with lead fragments. A few weeks later, Minnesota made a similar advisory after laboratory tests discovered lead in venison that had been donated to food pantries in Minnesota.

Later in 2008, the North Dakota Department of Public Health partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the impact on blood lead levels from lead tainted meat. The study found that people who had consumed meat hunted with lead ammunition had higher levels of lead in their blood. Lead ammunition presented an “important risk factor” for lead contamination, the report said.

This past March, 30 leading researchers in the field of lead toxicology released a statement of consensus saying that lead ammunition presents a significant threat to both wildlife and people. “Lead-based ammunition is likely the greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States,” the letter reads.

Audubon California has joined with the Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States to support Assembly Bill 711, which will require the use of nonlead ammunition for all hunting in California.

UPDATE 2017 -- AB 711 was signed by the governor in late 2013 and is now law.

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