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Study: Central Illinois Venison Often Contaminated With Lead

deer approaching a road
Robert F. Bukaty
IWU researchers found significant lead contamination in processed venison from deer harvested in central Illinois.

A study done by two Illinois Wesleyan University professors and a Bloomington veterinarian shows 48% of ground venison packets sampled had lead contamination.

The research from Given Harper, Aaron Schultz Wilson, and veterinarian Matt Fraker appeared in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It analyzed ground venison packets from shotgun and archery-harvested white-tailed deer in Illinois in 2013 and 2014. 

Harper, who said he is a hunter who used lead shot, became curious about the potential for contamination, and decided to do the study.

Radiographs showed 48% of 27 ground venison packets from 10 shotgun-harvested deer contained metal fragments. None of the 15 packets from three archery-harvested deer contained small fragments.

“I think that that's why they don't get noticed during the processing of the deer and don't get removed,” said Wilson. “We're talking in the milligram range, very small pieces, but any exposure to lead is bad.”

There is no bottom limit to how much lead is safe to ingest. Once it's in your system, it can stay for a long time, said Wilson.

“It can get into your bones and from there it will stay in your system and can come out of the bones and affect you down the line,” he said.

Lead poisoning is a common threat to children who live in older houses that still have lead paint on the walls or window frames. The City of Bloomington, in fact, recently received a $2.3 million federal grant to remove lead from older homes.

Lead can cause brain damage in children, heart and kidney problems, anemia, and even high blood pressure.

Wilson said it’s not clear how much lead adults will absorb from eating contaminated deer meet. He said children have bodies that are better at assimilating lead. They're going to take up about half the lead they ingest into their body, said Wilson.

The study showed it’s hard to tell which deer has the lead. The study noted 60% of meat processing plants mixed venison meat from more than one deer before packaging. 

“So even if a hunter uses non-lead ammunition, it's possible that the hunter could get ground venison with lead fragments,” said Harper, the study's lead author. 

Harper said in Illinois, about 90% of the deer that have been killed over the past several years have been harvested with shotguns. 

“Most of the studies that had been done with rifle bullets, and those bullets travel at a faster rate of speed and tend to fragment more than shotgun slugs,” said Wilson. “There have been relatively few studies on shotgun slugs. And so that's also part of the reason we decided to pursue this project.”

The authors said there is a wildlife issue as well in Illinois.

“Bald eagles and other scavengers will feed on unrecovered deer carcasses and will feed on in trail piles,” said Harper. “That is the gut piles. When a hunter harvest(s) the deer, he or she will remove the entrails and those will also potentially contain lead fragments.”

Harper noted the state of California has banned lead ammunition. 

“The endangered California condors have high mortality,” said Harper. “The issue is that they were feeding on carcasses of animals that had been killed with lead ammunition and they were dying of lead poisoning.” 

The authors noted Illinois has a statewide program that allows hunters to donate deer meat to food pantries. 

“We hope that this study will increase awareness, especially among hunters, because there’s a concern about their health and the health of their families,” said Wilson. 

Harper said the study is not an argument against hunting. He said he switched to non-ammunition.

“Hunting is an absolutely vital mechanism to control the deer population in the state,” said Harper. “There are no major deer predators in the state, like wolves and cougars have been extirpated.” 

Harper said there are several kinds of non-toxic ammunition made from bismuth, tungsten, tin, or copper.

The firearm deer hunting season begins Nov. 20 in Illinois.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.