If lead bullets are bad for people, why do we keep using them?

15 Jun 2017

The adage which says - “you are what you eat” carries with it a very important message which has somehow been lost. The phrase simply means it is important to eat good food in order to be healthy and fit. Whilst eating good food might be the ideal, this is clearly not the case in some communities.

For instance, it is embedded in some cultures that whenever there is a wedding, a shooter is engaged to shoot and kill a cow for the wedding feast. More so, once the shooter completes this task, he/she is given a portion of the slaughtered animal as a token of appreciation. The portion is called ‘thupa’ in some tribes. 

Unknown to many is the fact that what is contained in ammunition is lead – a metal which many scientists have urged should be abandoned for the sake of people’s health. Lead - a naturally occurring bluish-gray metal found in small amounts in the earth's crust - which can also be found in plants, animals, air, water, dust, and soil is the power behind the energy in a bullet.

And various research reveals very disturbing news. There is concern that the consumption of lead shot game can present a risk to human health - especially to children and pregnant women and lead present on stock feed poses the same threat.

Because it is an element, lead can't be broken down into smaller components. It can exist by itself as a metal, but it is more often combined with other elements in a variety of compounds. Even when it goes into an animal or human body, it does not break down. Thus, as a foreign ‘object’ inside the body, it tempers with development or normal function of body tissues. 

Information from the American Cancer Society web page indicates that organic lead compounds are where lead is combined primarily with carbon and hydrogen. The lead compounds that were used to make leaded gasoline, tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead, are examples of organic lead compounds. It also highlights that some expert agencies have evaluated the cancer-causing potential of lead and lead compounds.

“People are exposed to lead mainly by breathing it (from dust or fumes) or swallowing it. Because of its widespread use over the years, exposure to lead in the environment is now more likely to come from man-made rather than natural sources. Lead can change forms (for example from organic to inorganic) and can move around in the environment (for example, from the air to the soil to the water), but it does not break down and go away,” it states.

International Scientific gatherings like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conferences have since noted that, “Lead can be both an acute and chronic poison of all vertebrates resulting in both direct and indirect mortality, and morbidity, and that lead ammunition ingestion either directly from the environment, or from prey, can cause avoidable suffering and mortality affecting some species' population status.”

Explaining occurrences in the scenario on human food chain ‘contamination’ through ingesting lead,  Dr Kabelo Senyatso who has participated in numerous global gatherings, including the IUCN where scientific motions are debated and some passed, highlighted that, carcinogens(substances that cause or help cancer grow) can be taken into humans through swallowing. He said two cases can happen: First eating meat of an animal shot by lead-containing ammunition risks the health of the human being. Second, eating meats of animals that had fed on forages with high level concentration of lead can also be disastrous!

 “Lead on ammunition used to slaughter animals pose danger to the flesh of the slaughtered animal and ultimately to the human beings who feed on that meat. This has been debated at IUCN and resolutions taken. There should be promotion, where feasible, for the phasing out of lead shot used for hunting over wetlands and lead ammunition used for hunting in areas where scavengers are at particular risk from the use of lead ammunition, and the replacement of it with suitable alternatives,” said Dr Senyatso, also Director of Birdlife Botswana.

Furthermore, he said, IUCN members have been encouraged to work with all relevant stakeholders to assess the feasibility of the phasing-out of lead in ammunition used for hunting, and to work together towards its replacement with suitable alternatives, recognizing the present technical and commercial challenges that would need to be overcome, associated with some forms of ammunition

On feeding on animals that fed on lead concentrated forages, Dr Senyatso highlighted that a research by a team from Botswana College of Agriculture showed that forages harvested at some spots around the Dibete area had high concentration of lead and that risk factors have been found in the consumption of the meats.

The research was conducted by a Lecturer at the Botswana College of Agriculture(Now Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN) in 2012, Dr John Moreki and two others- Tshoganetso Owen Wood and Patrick Nthoiwa. The research titled ‘ESTIMATION OF THE CONCENTRATION OF HEAVY METALS IN FORAGES HARVESTED AROUND DIBETE AREA, BOTSWANA’ was conducted, primarily because, “The irregularity of rainfall, both in time, and its highly scattered nature, means that fodder production is seasonal and local. During the dry period when grazing is poor, forages growing along the Gaborone – Francistown highway (A1) are increasingly harvested as a source of animal feed (fodder). Such use might pose health risks not only to domesticated animals but also to humans via the food chain. Therefore, a study was conducted to estimate levels of heavy metals in forage harvested along A1 highway for livestock utilisation as fodder around the Dibete area.”

All heavy metals in this study were significantly affected by seasonal variation except Cudmium. The forage heavy metal concentrations in the current study were below toxic levels. It therefore appears that forage harvesting for livestock feeding around the Dibete area should be done not less than 30 metres from the A1 road edge to minimise contamination.

In response to this publication’s questions, Dr Virginia Letsatsi from the Ministry of Health and Wellness explained that Lead is a metal that is poisonous when inhaled or taken by mouth. It gets into the blood stream and gets stored in the organs, tissues, bones and teeth. 

“With prolonged or increasing exposure, lead can cause other health issues such as damage to the central nervous system, especially the brain; delayed development in children; behavioral changes and learning problems in children; decreased production of red blood cells (anemia) due to damage to the bone marrow; hearing problems; reproductive problems such as miscarriages, still births, low sperm count, erectile dysfunction; Kidney disease, leading to high blood pressure; Convulsions,” elucidated Dr Letsatsi.

She said it has been hard to evaluate lead’s ability to cause cancer. Study quality and findings have been mixed, and some studies have been complicated by study subjects being exposed to other toxins such as arsenic. Overall evidence is weak associating lead with cancer, and the most likely associations are for lung cancer, stomach cancer and gliomas.

“Despite this, it is important to remember that lead can cause other health problems and that it is important to limit your exposure whenever possible,” she cautioned.