DULUTH -- Ten years of monitoring donated venison in Minnesota have found that more than 7% of deer meat contains toxic lead fragments from bullets.

The monitoring is conducted each year by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which X-rays all of the venison donated by hunters to all Minnesota food shelves.

Over the past 10 years, 94,782 pounds of venison have been donated by hunters to help feed the hungry. But of that, 6,735 pounds, 7.1%, had to be thrown out because it was contaminated with lead.

The issue of lead in venison has been gaining attention for more than a decade since the first research began finding unexpectedly high lead levels in venison — not just around but sometimes scattered through the meat due to the shock and fragmentation of high-speed lead bullets.

Neatly packaged venison roasts, steaks and chops ready for the freezer or frying pan. A decade of monitoring by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture found that 7.1% of all donated venison contains toxic lead. (File / News Tribune)
Neatly packaged venison roasts, steaks and chops ready for the freezer or frying pan. A decade of monitoring by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture found that 7.1% of all donated venison contains toxic lead. (File / News Tribune)

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The amount of donated meat that was contaminated by lead ranged annually from a low of 2.3% to a high of 15.1%.

But it’s not just donated deer meat that contains lead. It’s likely that most of the venison hunters are eating — and feeding to their families and friends — contains similar amounts of lead with the vast majority of rifle and shotgun hunters still using lead bullets and slugs.

Carrol Henderson, retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who founded and then headed the state’s Nongame Wildlife Program for decades, calculates that over the past 10 years Minnesota hunters have packaged up more than a half-million pounds of lead-contaminated venison.

Henderson used DNR and Department of Agriculture data showing hunters have averaged 195,010 deer shot each year from 2011 to 2021, by all types of hunting. At an average of 37 pounds of meat per deer, that’s more than 7.2 million pounds of venison. If you take the Department of Agriculture’s 7.1% tainted average, that means state hunters have packaged up 512,291 pounds of lead-tainted meat.

“I've been following this along year by year. But when you look at that total number, holy cow, that’s a half-million pounds of venison with lead in it,” Henderson said. “I thought it was time people saw these numbers. I don’t think anyone or any agency has made this available to the public before.”

This image shows the results of a lead bullet, top, and a copper bullet both fired into gelatin. The lead bullet leaves hundreds of fragments that are toxic to humans and animals. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service)
This image shows the results of a lead bullet, top, and a copper bullet both fired into gelatin. The lead bullet leaves hundreds of fragments that are toxic to humans and animals. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service)

It’s been known for decades that lead is a potent neurotoxin that can impact the brain, nerves and especially development in fetuses and growing children. Lead causes widespread damage to cells and organs when it is ingested, inhaled or absorbed in surprisingly small quantities. That’s why lead has been removed from paint and from gasoline. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn children, damaging developing babies' nervous systems.

Henderson is concerned about the lead-bullet issue not just for human health but also for wildlife, with many eagles and other critters dying from lead poisoning each year in Minnesota after feeding on lead-tainted meat in the wild.

Much like the issue of small lead fishing tackle killing loons and other water birds, Henderson said eagles and other land scavengers don’t have to die from eating lead bullets because many unleaded options abound.

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A growing number of hunters are switching to copper and other forms of nontoxic ammunition. And more ammunition manufacturers are offering more options for all types of hunting. (Lead shotgun loads have been illegal for waterfowl hunting for more than 30 years.)

“But there are still a lot of people who hunt and fish who haven’t got the message about lead, or haven’t listened to it yet, or maybe don’t understand it,” Henderson noted. “And there are some big groups that are using scare tactics, saying that getting away from lead bullets is somehow going to end hunting or take away your guns. … That’s just crazy. You can still have your traditional deer hunting experience while using nontoxic ammunition.”

At least three bills have been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature this year that deal with lead ammunition, although all of them stop short of requiring deer hunters to use nontoxic alternatives.

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HF 830 and SF19 would offer a sales tax exemption for non-toxic ammunition; HF 1645 and SF1522 would provide a voucher for free nontoxic ammunition to people, usually teenagers, who complete their firearms safety certificate; and HF 30 and SF166 allocate $133,000 from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for the University of Minnesota, DNR and other groups to provide outreach to hunters on the importance of making the switch to nontoxic ammunition to protect wildlife.

“Although these bills certainly help to advance public knowledge about the benefits of nontoxic ammunition, financial incentives and education are inadequate to solve the toxic lead ammunition problem,” said Tom Casey, board chair of the nonprofit Friends of Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas. “Minnesota must pass legislation to phase out lead ammunition. Nontoxic ammunition, and nontoxic fishing tackle. are good for human health, our natural resources, and promote the hunting and fishing communities as conservationists.”