Potential hazard to human health from exposure to fragments of lead bullets and shot in the tissues of game animals

Deborah J Pain, Ruth L Cromie, Julia Newth, Martin J Brown, Eric Crutcher, Pippa Hardman, Louise Hurst, Rafael Mateo, Andrew A Meharg, Annette C Moran, Andrea Raab, Mark A Taggart, Rhys E Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Lead is highly toxic to animals. Humans eating game killed using lead ammunition generally avoid swallowing shot or bullets and dietary lead exposure from this source has been considered low. Recent evidence illustrates that lead bullets fragment on impact, leaving small lead particles widely distributed in game tissues. Our paper asks whether lead gunshot pellets also fragment upon impact, and whether lead derived from spent gunshot and bullets in the tissues of game animals could pose a threat to human health.

Methodology/Principal Findings: Wild-shot gamebirds (6 species) obtained in the UK were X-rayed to determine the number of shot and shot fragments present, and cooked using typical methods. Shot were then removed to simulate realistic practice before consumption, and lead concentrations determined. Data from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate Statutory Surveillance Programme documenting lead levels in raw tissues of wild gamebirds and deer, without shot being removed, are also presented. Gamebirds containing >= 5 shot had high tissue lead concentrations, but some with fewer or no shot also had high lead concentrations, confirming X-ray results indicating that small lead fragments remain in the flesh of birds even when the shot exits the body. A high proportion of samples from both surveys had lead concentrations exceeding the European Union Maximum Level of 100 ppb w.w. (0.1 mg kg(-1) w.w.) for meat from bovine animals, sheep, pigs and poultry (no level is set for game meat), some by several orders of magnitude. High, but feasible, levels of consumption of some species could result in the current FAO/WHO Provisional Weekly Tolerable Intake of lead being exceeded.

Conclusions/Significance: The potential health hazard from lead ingested in the meat of game animals may be larger than previous risk assessments indicated, especially for vulnerable groups, such as children, and those consuming large amounts of game.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere10315
Number of pages17
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2010


  • intellectual impairment
  • children
  • birds
  • risk


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