COLUMBIA — In 2008, when North Dakota tested ground venison donated to food pantries, lead fragments from bullets used by hunters were found in 50 percent of the samples.
Since then, the presence of lead in venison has attracted increasing interest among wildlife and health officials. The Missouri Department of Conservation, for the second year, is reminding hunters to butcher their deer in ways that limit the amount of lead in their venison and encouraging them to consider using copper instead of lead bullets.
HOW TO MINIMIZE LEAD FRAGMENTS IN VENISON
-- Examine the area around the wound.
-- Remove damaged meat, plus all meat within 3 inches in all directions of the wound.
-- Remove blood-shot areas and meat with evidence of bone fragments or other contamination.
-- Inspect carcasses after trimming looking for bruised meat or other evidence of possible contamination.
-- Trim further where necessary.
-- Most importantly, use copper bullets.
SOURCE: Missouri Department of Conservation
"Health officials in Missouri and several other states have reviewed this new information and concluded that lead in venison is a concern, but not a human health crisis," the Department of Conservation reports on its Web site.
Pregnant women and children fewer than 6 years of age are particularly sensitive to lead exposure, as well as women of childbearing age, because they can pass lead to their unborn children.
When deer are shot with lead bullets, the meat can be exposed to lead fragments. On the other hand, there is little or no fragmentation when copper bullets are used.
After seeing the results from North Dakota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources initiated its own study. The Minnesota study on bullet fragmentation, published in October 2008, noted that although no illnesses have been linked to lead in venison, lead "can harm human bodies at levels that cause no noticeable symptoms."
In addition to suggesting the use of copper bullets, guidelines for Missouri deer hunters include ways to dress and butcher the meat to minimize contamination.
"The guidelines given are just an advisory," said Kit Wagar of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "However, even in a good kill, invisible bullet pieces break up into the meat."
Jason Sumners, a deer biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said he's aware of the health issue but still uses lead bullets.
"We aren't moving towards prohibiting lead bullets, by any means," he said.
However, Summer's personal choice would change if his wife were pregnant: he would use copper bullets or not eat venison at all.
Lee Brandkamp of Powder Horn Guns and Archery in Columbia said most hunters continue to purchase lead bullets. "Most hunters are clueless, but some hunters follow the guidelines," he said.
While copper is considered safer, it's also costlier. At Power Horn, for example, a .30-caliber, 150-grain lead-cored copper jacketed bullet costs about 26 cents compared to about 74 cents for a comparable bullet made of copper.