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Päivi Jokiniemi and Paul Trouth
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(Un)loading lead – saving wildlife and nature in wetlands
Lead shot has been widely used for decades in hunting and sports shooting. Yet, we know that lead has toxic effects on ecosystems and wildlife. This is why the EU is looking into restricting its use in wetlands in the near future. ECHA Newsletter explains the background.
What is the issue?
European wetlands are a habitat for numerous species of waterbirds, including wildfowl like ducks and geese. Hunting them on wetlands with lead gunshot is associated with lead poisoning in wildlife.
This poisoning arises after waterbirds ingest spent lead gunshot that they find on the ground or in water after mistaking it either for food or for small stones (called grit) that they swallow to help them digest their food.
Scavenging birds that feed on unretrieved waterbirds killed using lead gunshot can also consequently suffer from lead poisoning. After the lead gunshot is ingested, it is ground down into small pieces in the bird's gizzards (a muscular digestive organ unique to birds). These pieces are then absorbed from the gut and into bird's tissues. As lead is highly toxic, this frequently results in birds dying through lead poisoning. Depending on the quantity of lead ingested, death can occur soon after the shot has been consumed or after a period of two to three weeks. Ingestion of a single lead shot can cause the death of a small duck. Where lead poisoning is not fatal, it can also cause harmful, sub-lethal effects on reproduction and the immune system.
The amount of lead released into EU wetlands due to hunting has been estimated to be around 4 000 tonnes per year. Sports shooting in wetlands contributes an additional amount, although this is difficult to precisely assess.
These uses of lead shot are believed to result in the deaths of up to one million waterbirds each year throughout the EU. There could also be additional impacts on scavenging and predatory birds.
How lead can affect health
Although there is no quantitative data available on the risks to humans from consuming wildfowl hunted with lead gunshot, lead remains a concern for human health.
Exposure to it is associated with a wide range of negative health effects, including neurodevelopmental impairment, reduced fertility, hypertension and damage to the kidneys. It is considered as a non-threshold toxic substance, meaning that there is no safe level of consumption.
Any reduction of dietary lead exposure will therefore contribute to reducing the human health risks posed by lead, particularly for children and adults who regularly consume game meat. Avoiding the contamination of groundwater from shooting ranges could also reduce human exposure to lead through drinking water.
Regulating lead shot across the EU
In the EU, all but three Member States – Poland, Romania and Slovenia – have signed up to the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), which has been in place since 2000 and proposes to phase out the use of lead gunshot in wetlands. Several Member States implemented legislation that completely prohibits the use of lead gunshot, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. In others, partial bans are in place.
However, four Member States – Ireland and the three AEWA non-signatories: Poland, Romania and Slovenia – have not implemented any restriction on the use of lead gunshot in wetlands. Regulating the risk at EU level will therefore ensure an appropriate and harmonised level of protection for European wetlands and wildlife.
A restriction will harmonise the level of protection across Member States, which as a consequence of the different levels of protection still see millions of birds die each year. Those Member States without current legislation account for 13-15 % of these deaths.
What is being proposed?
In December 2015, the European Commission asked ECHA to prepare a restriction proposal for the use of lead in shot in wetlands. ECHA analysed the evidence and submitted its dossier in April 2017.
ECHA's proposal suggests restricting the use of gunshot that contains more than 1 % of lead, for shooting with a shotgun over or within wetlands, including at shooting ranges or on shooting grounds in wetlands.
At the same time, the Commission also asked ECHA to start collecting information on the potential risks of using lead in ammunition for hunting in terrestrial environments outside of wetlands. This work is being done separately to the restriction of lead in shot used in wetlands.
Are there any viable alternatives?
Experience from those countries where a ban is already in place shows that hunters and sports shooters have adapted to using alternatives without any significant problems in relation to ricochet and other safety issues.
Indeed, several scientific studies have shown that the use of steel gunshot cartridges results in similar hunting success to that achieved with lead gunshot cartridges and without causing concerns related to crippling or wounding waterbirds.
The need to replace older shotguns with newer ones so that alternatives to lead gunshot can be used has also been a topic of fierce debate. However, evidence gathered while preparing the restriction indicates that modern shotguns (those manufactured after 1970) are capable of using standard steel shot, and this has been confirmed by major gun manufacturers.
Lead-free gunshot cartridges are suitable for all types of shooting in wetlands and are widely available in the EU. They are also similarly priced to lead gunshot cartridges.
If ‘high-performance’ steel cartridges are needed, for example, when hunting larger waterfowl, older shotguns may need to be modified or replaced.
Bismuth- or tungsten-based gunshot cartridges can also be used as alternatives to lead cartridges and can be used in any shotgun, including vintage shotguns. However, bismuth- and tungsten-based shot cartridges are about four to five times more expensive than equivalent lead gunshot cartridges.
Hunters will need to decide how best to comply with the restriction depending on their individual circumstances and preferences, although it is assumed that most will switch to steel.
What happens next?
The opinions supported ECHA’s proposal to restrict lead and its compounds in gunshot as well as the conclusions on the number of birds currently being killed by lead gunshot and the costs of the restriction to hunters.
In its final opinion, SEAC concluded that further action on a Europe-wide level is required to address the risks associated with lead gunshot in wetlands.
Furthermore, SEAC concluded that the effective implementation of the AEWA requires a consistent minimum level of protection of waterbirds across the EU, which would be achieved by the proposed restriction.
The compiled RAC and SEAC opinion was submitted to the European Commission on 17 August 2018 for decision making. The Commission now has three months to produce its draft decision.
If adopted, a transitional period of 36 months after entry into force is proposed, to allow a smooth transition to the use of alternatives.
What is a wetland?
Wetlands are defined differently in different Member States. In the restriction dossier, the internationally recognised definition in the Ramsar Convention has been used.
This defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres”.
Did you know?
In 2004, the European Federation for Hunting and Conservation (FACE) and BirdLife International both asked to phase out of the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands throughout the EU as soon as possible (and in any case by 2009 at the latest).
The proposed EU-wide restriction on lead in shot used in wetlands would ensure the effective implementation of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), to which the EU has been a contracting party since 2005. One of the obligations of AEWA parties is to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands as soon as possible.
The AEWA was developed under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme and is an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to conserving migratory waterbirds and their habitats across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago.
Text by Nedyu Yasenov
Published on: 13 September 2018
Top image: IStock.com/Turan Sezar
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
Committee for Socio-Economic
18-22 March (tentative)
Management Board meeting:
Member State Committee:
13-17 May (tentative)