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Getting the Lead Out of Both Dumps and Ammo

Can't control guns? Then how about the lead in bullets?
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Shell casings left at a firing range. The lead in bullets comes from the tips of these casings or the pellets contained in the shotgun shells. (PHOTO: AYTON/FLICKR)

Shell casings left at a firing range. The lead in bullets comes from the tips of these casings or the pellets contained in the shotgun shells. (PHOTO: AYTON/FLICKR)

The old rejoinder in the gun control debate that “guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people” takes on added resonance when the lead from ammo that didn’t get plucked out by surgeons remains in the environment, creating new health problems for man and beast.

Now that peeling lead paint is mostly a bad memory, the concern of late has centered on the beasts. Lead shot left in the wild can poison birds (we’ve written about trumpeter swans, for example) that ingest the shot either as an aid to digestion or in bullet-riddled carrion.

This week, noting that endangered California condors in the Grand Canyon are dying of lead poisoning from blasted animals they’ve scavenged, the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity“redoubled” their efforts to get Arizona to ban lead in bullets and shotgun shells. (Other states, like California, have some limits on lead-based bullets, and even that arsenal of ecology, the Pentagon, is looking at green bullets.) And on March 22, a coalition of 30 medical doctors, zoologists, ecologists, and other scientists released a consensus statement supporting “the reduction and eventual elimination of lead released to the environment through the discharge of lead-based ammunition.”

While bullets might seem a fairly esoteric pollutant, the scientists note both that ammunition is the second largest industrial use of lead in the United States (car batteries are number one) and that unlike other uses of lead, ammo’s environmental impact isn’t regulated:

Lead-based ammunition is likely the greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States. In contrast, other significant sources of lead in the environment, such as leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, and lead-based solder, are recognized as harmful and have been significantly reduced or eliminated over the past 50 years.

But not all lead bullets are fired, as the residents of the Connecticut town of Hamden discovered. The Winchester Repeating Arms plant in nearby New Haven legally dumped its industrial wastes, including ample helpings of lead, in the local wetlands. Around the turn of the century, plans to expand a local school revealed the chemical miasma underground; the neighborhood subsequently became a state and federal Superfund site. (Most federal Superfund sites with a particular lead problem, by the way, originated not from munitions but from mining or smelting, which is still a frequent vector for lead poisoning in the less developed world.)

Below is a little primer on the sources (beyond bullets) and cleanup of lead, provided by one of the contractors beavering away at Hamden.


Thanks to Sevenson Environmental Services for providing this infographic.