Human consumers of wildlife killed with lead ammunition may be exposed to health risks associated with lead ingestion. This hypothesis is based on published studies showing elevated blood lead concentrations in subsistence hunter populations, retention of ammunition residues in the tissues of hunter-killed animals, and systemic, cognitive, and behavioral disorders associated with human lead body burdens once considered safe. Our objective was to determine the incidence and bioavailability of lead bullet fragments in hunter-killed venison, a widely-eaten food among hunters and their families. We radiographed 30 eviscerated carcasses of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) shot by hunters with standard lead-core, copper-jacketed bullets under normal hunting conditions. All carcasses showed metal fragments (geometric mean = 136 fragments, range = 15–409) and widespread fragment dispersion. We took each carcass to a separate meat processor and fluoroscopically scanned the resulting meat packages; fluoroscopy revealed metal fragments in the ground meat packages of 24 (80%) of the 30 deer; 32% of 234 ground meat packages contained at least one fragment. Fragments were identified as lead by ICP in 93% of 27 samples. Isotope ratios of lead in meat matched the ratios of bullets, and differed from background lead in bone. We fed fragment-containing venison to four pigs to test bioavailability; four controls received venison without fragments from the same deer. Mean blood lead concentrations in pigs peaked at 2.29 µg/dL (maximum 3.8 µg/dL) 2 days following ingestion of fragment-containing venison, significantly higher than the 0.63 µg/dL averaged by controls. We conclude that people risk exposure to bioavailable lead from bullet fragments when they eat venison from deer killed with standard lead-based rifle bullets and processed under normal procedures. At risk in the U.S. are some ten million hunters, their families, and low-income beneficiaries of venison donations
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