Harrisburg – John Plowman’s eaten a lot of venison from deer
that died via a bullet, and he’s never gotten sick as a result. He
doesn’t know of any hunter who’s ever gotten ill either.
That’s why Plowman – and the other people who run Pennsylvania’s
Hunters Sharing the Harvest program – have no plans to stop taking
donations of deer meat.
Similar programs in other states – notably in Minnesota and
North Dakota – have moved somewhat in that direction. They are only
taking donations of whole cuts of venison, as opposed to anything
that’s been ground, in light of a study that says deer killed with
bullets tend to retain some lead dust on the meat.
But Plowman’s not convinced there’s a need to go that far.
“It’s a non-issue, as far as we’re concerned,” Plowman said. “It
is not an issue here, and has not been one, and I don’t see
anything on the horizon that indicates it’s going to become
The lead study was done by researchers from the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources. They shot various kinds of bullets
into sheep carcasses – which mimic deer in size and density – then
measured the amount of lead particles and dust on the meat.
Researchers stopped short of saying the amount of lead that can
be found on venison is harmful.
But lead “dust” does travel significantly farther from a wound
channel than previously thought, and trying to wash it away can
actually spread it further, said Marrett Grund, the wildlife
research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural
Resources – and former Game Commission deer biologist – who did the
Taking a deer to a commercial processor, where meat might come
in contact with that from other deer, makes things worse, the study
But does shooting a deer with a lead bullet really put you at
Grund pointed out that there are no documented cases of anyone
getting ill from eating a deer that’s been killed with a lead
bullet, despite the fact that there are annually “millions of
pounds of venison consumed all across the country.” So no one is
sure if it’s a problem, or how big the problem might be, he
But switching from lead bullets to premium copper ones can
reduce your exposure, Grund said. Using shotgun slugs, which are
heavier and travel slower than high-velocity rifle bullets, can
reduce exposure to lead, too.
But the study is not so damning as to suggest there’s a need to
condemn or push for a ban on lead bullets, he added.
“I think the moral of the story is, it’s all about managing your
risk of exposure,” he said. “At this point in time, it’s just a
matter of personal choice.”
A follow-up study just completed by the North Dakota Department
of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control didn’t significantly
disagree with that.
For that study, blood was collected from 738 North Dakotans.
Some had not eaten any venison; others had consumed quite a bit of
“In the study, people who ate a lot of wild game tended to have
higher lead levels than those who ate little or none,” said Dr.
Stephen Pickard, an epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department
of Health. “The study also showed that the more recent the
consumption of wild game harvested with lead bullets, the higher
the level of lead in the blood.”
But it’s also true that some of those with higher levels of lead
in their blood had more than one potential risk factor for
exposure, Pickard said. So no one can say for sure whether it’s
bullets that put lead in some people’s blood or something else, he
The amount of lead in the blood of the adult study participant
with the highest reading still had less than enough for it to be
considered a concern for a child, added the National Shooting
Sports Foundation. Health officials could not verify whether that
adult had even consumed game harvested with traditional ammunition,
Finally, the study found “an insignificant” difference in blood
lead levels between participants who ate wild game harvested with
traditional ammunition and non-hunters in the control group, the
The Humane Society of the United States has taken the study as
evidence that lead bullets should be banned entirely, but the
Foundation says that’s ridiculous and an obvious attempt to end
hunting via a back-door method.
“We can only hope that with the conclusive CDC results
concerning the safety of traditional ammunition, legislatures
across the country will listen to science and not anti-hunting
radicals,” reads a Foundation press release.
Still, the North Dakota Department of Health has gone so far as
to suggest that pregnant women and children younger than 6 do not
eat venison taken with a lead bullet. It has also said that
venison-donation programs should continue to take only whole cuts
of meat unless the deer was killed with an arrow.
No one can say for sure if that’s a prudent move, said Lou
Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the Minnesota DNR who
worked with Grund on the study. He is switching from lead bullets
to copper ones, he said. But that’s a personal choice. Hunters
everywhere should have the opportunity to manage their own risk the
“I’m making the switch. A lot of people I’m working with are
making the switch. I think a fair number of people are looking at
it,” Cornicelli said.
“But everyone should make the decision that suits them and then
go deer hunting.”
Plowman plans to do just that, and eat all of the venison he
collects. He hopes hunters who donate to the Hunters Sharing the
Harvest program – which handed out 102,000 pounds of venison last
year to food banks, all of it ground into 1- or 2-pound packages –
will do the same.
“I have seen no scientific data to suggest that this is a real
problem,” he said. “I’ve been eating venison for more than 50
years, and I know lots of people who have eaten it even longer, so
I think maybe some of these other states are overreacting.”