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Terrestrial environments also being polluted with lead ammunition
In a recent report prepared by ECHA, the Agency recommends that measures are needed to regulate the use of lead ammunition in terrestrial environments. The report builds on the earlier proposal to restrict the use of lead shot in wetlands. We take a deeper look at the main findings of the report.
Expanding to non-wetland uses
In August 2018, the European Commission received the opinion of ECHA’s scientific committees on restricting the use of gunshot with more than 1 % of lead content that is used over or within wetlands, including at shooting ranges or on shooting grounds in wetlands.
Now, ECHA has published a report on the impact of lead ammunition on terrestrial environments.
This is a response to the Commission’s request to collect information on assessing the risk and socio-economic impact of restriction for other uses of lead ammunition, including hunting in other terrains than wetlands, for target shooting, and for the use of lead weights for fishing.
Military uses of ammunition are not within the scope of the investigation.
Why the focus is on lead
Lead-based ammunition is considered to be the most significant unregulated source of lead deliberately emitted into the environment in the EU.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal with no biological function. It is a non-specific poison affecting most body systems, and has negative effects on general health, reproduction and behaviour.
Absorbed lead affects all animals, from migratory birds to humans. Lead presents risks to wildlife, especially wild birds.
Lead differs from many contaminants in that there is no evidence for a threshold for a number of critical endpoints in humans including developmental neurotoxicity and nephrotoxicity, this means that there is no level below which observable effects cannot be seen.
Use of lead shot and bullets in terrestrial areas
An estimated 14 000 tonnes of lead shot is dispersed into terrestrial areas in the EU each year.
The use of shot and also lead bullets in terrestrial areas can contribute to the lead poisoning of various species.
As a preliminary assessment extrapolated from the mortality rates of birds in wetlands, this could see between one and two million terrestrial birds dying each year because of lead poisoning.
These numbers include predators and scavengers affected through secondary poisoning, due to commonly used hunting practices. Hunters often leave the intestines of the shot animal in the field where it is available for wild animals to scavenge on.
Mammals, birds of prey and scavengers that consume these intestines are then exposed to the lead. Some species of waterbirds, such as geese and swans, also forage for food and grit in terrestrial areas and can ingest lead while doing so.
|With 14 000 tonnes of lead shot estimated to be dispersed into terrestrial areas in the EU each year, this could see between one and two million terrestrial birds die annually from lead poisoning including some waterbirds, such as geese and swans, when they forage for food. |
Use of lead ammunition at shooting ranges
There are also growing concerns in the scientific community on the exposure of target shooters to lead dust used in lead ammunition, primers and propellants. It is estimated that sports shooters in the EU use around 10 000 to 20 000 tonnes of lead in shot cartridges per year on shooting grounds.
In addition, shooting ranges using lead shot and bullets also represent a risk of soil contamination in terrestrial areas, and risk contaminating nearby (ground)water sources in the EU. Expensive remediation may be needed based on the specific site’s situation.
How lead affects human health
Humans can also be exposed to lead when they consume game meat killed with lead ammunition. Both shotgun pellets and rifle bullets can fragment (in different ways) upon impact resulting in lead dispersing in the tissues of the target.
This dispersed lead has been believed to be removable by cutting away and discarding tissue from around the wound channel of game meat.
However, recent research suggests that lead fragments disperse widely as microscopic particles (potentially even nanoparticles) in tissues and that cutting away tissue from around the wound channel would not be sufficient to remove all of the lead that would be available for human consumption.
Furthermore, game meat is often consumed by hunters and their families outside of any food control mechanisms. Therefore, the consumption of game shot with lead-based ammunition can result in exposure that results in significant risks to frequent consumers of game.
Several European food agencies have advised citizens to be moderate when consuming game shot with lead.
The most recent development comes from the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety (Anses) who advised not to consume game shot with lead more than three times per year and that children and pregnant woman should not consume game shot with lead at all.
Instead of lead
Alternatives to lead shot are already available (mainly steel, bismuth and tungsten). They are the same as the alternatives used for wetland hunting and sports shooting.
The ECHA dossier on lead in shot over wetlands found that the effectiveness of the alternatives is comparable to lead-containing shot.
Since alternative steel shot is already available, can be used in most shotguns (manufactured after 1970) and, on average, is not currently more expensive than lead shot, the costs of replacing lead shot for an individual hunter are considered to be limited.
Alternatives to lead-based bullets are also available and are increasing in popularity, for example, due to on-going regional restrictions in Germany.
The proposed California ban on lead-based bullets, which is expected to take full effect in 2019, has also helped stimulate the global development of lead alternatives (usually based on copper), which has increased the supply of these alternatives.
Use of lead in fishing tackle
In addition to ammunition, the Commission asked ECHA to investigate fishing weights, sinkers and jigs as potential sources of lead contamination in the environment.
The main issue with lead-based fishing tackle is that it is frequently lost during use. In fact, some contemporary fishing practices encourage the deliberate release of lead weights to the aquatic environment in some circumstances (known as ‘dropping the lead’; to ensure fish welfare in the event that rigs are lost or snagged).
There have also been risks identified for waterbirds linked to the use of lead fishing weights and their ingestion.
In addition, many recreational anglers create their own lead-based fishing tackle at home. The risks of consumer exposure to lead-containing dusts or vapours during these activities appears to be likely. Appropriate and effective risk management measures are not always consistently used to minimise the associated risks.
The risks from this practice could also be addressed by further regulatory action.
|In addition to ammunition, the Commission also asked ECHA to investigate fishing weights, sinkers and jigs as potential sources of lead contamination in the environment. The main issue with lead-based fishing tackle is that it is frequently lost during use. Image: iStock.com/Golero.|
ECHA’s new report on non-wetland uses of lead in ammunition (shot and bullets) and in fishing weights has found sufficient evidence of risk to justify additional measures.
The report concludes that measures are needed because they would:
- limit additional pollution with lead and improve the quality of the environment, also reducing the potential need for expensive soil and (ground)water remediation;
- reduce health risks to a significant population of hunters and their families who frequently eat game meat that has been killed with lead shot or bullets;
- reduce the deaths of an estimated one to two million birds, such as pheasants and partridges, that may inadvertently swallow the lead shot and reduce the death and poisoning of scavengers and predators feeding on lead-poisoned birds in the terrestrial environment; and
- minimise associated risks of consumer exposure to lead-containing dusts or vapours during fishing activities.
The report was sent to the Commission in September 2018 where it will be further discussed within their respective services.
Lead in terrestrial environments
Text by Nedyu Yasenov
Published on: 20 November 2018
Top image: © iStock.com/epitavi
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