Issue Brief Food Policy Research Center

Hunting Ammunition and Implications for Public Health

Publication date

March, 2014



  • Multiple types of hunting ammunition are available with varying ballistics and public health implications.
  • Game meat harvested with lead ammunition may be contaminated with lead fragments.
  • Ingestion of lead fragments in game meat may present health risks, especially to women and children. There is no level of lead exposure in children known to be without adverse effects.
  • Public health risks can be mitigated by use of alternative hunting ammunitions.


Hunting is a popular outdoor recreational activity throughout the United States, providing both benefits to human health (enjoyment of the outdoors, exercise, social interactions) and a source of food (lean protein). There are over 10 million deer hunters in the United States spending $33.7 billion annually which supports state and local economies as well as natural resource management.1 Hunter-harvested game is used as a source of meat for individual families, and also, through donations, is an important source of protein for food shelves.2 More than 2.5 million pounds of game meat is donated annually in the United States and Canada. Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) coordinates a venison donation program, recognizing that it helps families in need as well as provides additional management for deer populations.3 Following the discovery that tiny lead fragments are frequently dispersed throughout the meat harvested with lead ammunition, the potential threat to public health spurred new requirements for venison donations. Currently all hunter harvested venison in Minnesota (MN) must be x-ray scanned prior to donation.3 The magnitude of the public health risk varies based on the type of ammunition used and its metal content.

Hunting ammunition

Hunting ammunition table

*Lead toxicity - Interferes with development of nervous syste; toxic to heart, kidneys, and nervous system6
** See images
 Image showing fragmentation of lead and non-lead ammunition passing through ballistic gelatin

Image showing fragmentation of lead and non-lead ammunition passing through ballistic gelatin 

Radiographic demonstration of lead bullet  fragmentation in sheep carcass

 Radiographic demonstration of lead bullet fragmentation in sheep carcass5

Public Health Considerations:

Lead hunting bullets fragment upon impact. Wildlife officials investigating lead toxicity in non-target species (eagles, condors) discovered that lead fragments disperse widely in the carcass and gut pile of deer shot by hunters, causing adverse health effects for animals that scavenge these carcasses.These same health risks apply to humans because fragments may be ingested when the meat is processed for food. While lead shot is usually detected while eating and discarded, the lead ‘dust’ dispersed in meat by fragmentation of lead rifle bullets cannot be easily detected. Fragmentation leads to increased bioavailability of the lead and associated public health risk. Studies have shown:

  • Elevated blood lead levels in hunters who regularly consume game meat shot with lead ammunition.9, 10, 11 
  • Elevated blood lead levels in pigs after ingestions of venison shot with lead ammunition.2
  • Fragments of lead bullet in 26–60% of ground venison packages from commercial processors.4, 13

At risk populations include 10 million deer hunters and their families in the United States, as well as low income recipients of donated venison. In 2008, food banks had to remove venison contaminated with lead from their shelves.14The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states there is no level of lead exposure in children known to be without adverse effects.15 Based on these recognized health risks, MN, Wisconsin and North Dakota wildlife agencies and state health departments have recommended that pregnant women and children do not eat any game harvested with lead ammunition.14, 16, 17 Additional human health studies are needed to determine the extent of ill health effects that lead ammunition is having.

Alternatives to lead rifle bullets are available; costs of ammunition types vary with copper rifle ammunition comparable to premium grade lead ammunition. Copper rifle ammunition has been demonstrated to be effective with excellent ballistics and quick kill, two issues important to hunters.18 Another important issue is availability in terms of calibers and bullet weights, which is improving, but small retailers need to carry non-lead ammunition in addition to the larger ‘big box’ stores.

Policy options:

Non-lead ammunition is recommended to help ensure both a healthy environment for wildlife and safe food for humans, especially when deer-hunting with rifles. Multiple professional and scientific organizations have passed resolutions recommending the phasing out of lead ammunition.19, 20, 21,22, 23 Policy options adopted by other states include:

  • Voluntary grassroots efforts through hunter education and ammunition exchange programs.
  • Regulation of lead in ammunition – in 2013, California became the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunting throughout the state.


  1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2011) National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. 
  2. Minnesota Department of Agriculture (2013) Venison Donation in Minnesota. 
  3. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2014) Donating hunter-harvested deer in Minnesota. 
  4. Grund, M. D.; Cornicelli, L.; Carlson, L. T.; & Butler, E. A. (2010). Bullet fragmentation and lead deposition in white-tailed deer and domestic sheep. Human-wildlife interactions, 4(2), 257-265.
  5. Institute of Medicine (US). Panel on Micronutrients, Institute of Medicine (US). Food, & Nutrition Board. (2001). Copper. In DRI, Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc: A Report of the Panel on Micronutrients, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. National Academies Press.
  6. Needleman, H. (2004). Lead poisoning. Annu. Rev. Med., 55, 209-222.
  7. Hunting with non-lead ammunitionBullet performance.
  8. Hunt, G.; Burnham, W.; Parish, C.; Burnham, K.; Mutch, B.; & Oaks, J.L. (2009). Bullet fragments in deer remains: Implications for lead exposure in scavengers. In Watson RT, Fuller M, Pokras M, Hunt WG, eds , Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans 254-257.
  9. Johansen, P.; Pedersen, H. S.; Asmund, G.; & Riget, F. (2006). Lead shot from hunting as a source of lead in human blood. Environmental Pollution, 142(1), 93-97.
  10. Iqbal, S.; Blumenthal, W.; Kennedy, C.; Yip,F. Y.; Pickard, S.; Flanders,W.D.; Loringer, K.; Kruger, K.; Caldwell, K.L.; & Brown, M.J. (2009).Hunting with lead: Association between blood lead levels and wild game consumption.Environmental Research 109 (8), 952-959.
  11. Tsuji, L. J.; Wainman, B. C.; Martin, I. D.; Sutherland, C.; Weber, J. P.; Dumas, P.; & Nieboer, E. (2008). The identification of lead ammunition as a source of lead exposure in First Nations: The use of lead isotope ratios.Science of the Total Environment, 393(2), 291-298.
  12. Hunt, W. G.; Watson, R. T.; Oaks, J. L.; Parish, C. N.; Burnham, K. K.; Tucker, R. L.; Belthoff, J. R.; & Hart, G. (2009). Lead bullet fragments in venison from rifle-killed deer: Potential for human dietary exposure. PLoS One, 4(4), e5330.
  13. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2010). Examining variability associated with bullet fragmentation and deposition in white-tailed deer and domestic sheep: preliminary results.
  14. Minnesota Department of Health (2008). Information about lead in venison.
  15. CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (2012b). Low Level Lead Exposure Harms Children: A Renewed Call for Primary Prevention. Report of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  16. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2013) Precautions for using lead ammunition. 
  17. North Dakota Department of Health (2005) Lead in Venison.
  18. Batha, C. & Lehman, P. (2010). How good are copper bullets, really??? 
  19. The Wildlife Society (2014). Lead in ammunition and fishing tackle. 
  20. Association of Avian Veterinarians (2013). Position statement: Lead-based ammunition and fishing tackle. 
  21. North American Falconers’ Association (2013). Lead in hunting ammunition and fishing tackle. 
  22. The Peregrine Fund. A brief summary of lead.
  23. Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (2013). Statement of veterinary support for a requirement to use non-lead ammunition for hunting.