The European lead ammunition scandal: the questions that need answering

By James Robinson, Director of Conservation

A proposal to prevent lead shot entering wetlands where it poisons a million waterbirds to death every year has been repeatedly removed from the agenda of an EU Committee that deals with chemical hazards (REACH)(see the WWT and Wetlands International letter here). This means that the key vote on the issue has been delayed or worse…

There are two reasonable reasons why it might be repeatedly delayed. Firstly, the proposal might be a bit tricky to implement. Secondly, the most effective measure to protect all wildlife, and people and the wider environment in Europe, is to get rid of all lead ammunition, everywhere. Indeed the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), under REACH, began the process to do just that at the end of the 2019 (likely to be completed by 2022). But I don’t believe either of these reasons are why the first ‘wetlands’ proposal is being delayed or watered down. Instead this smacks of a concerted effort to kill off this first restriction so the second wider proposal to get rid of all lead ammunition, is dead before it’s started.

The hunting traditions of Europe mean our continent remains a great depositor of lead ammunition into the environment. Every year, more than 20,000 tonnes of mainly lead shot falls into the very places where our migratory waterbirds of the European flyways feed and breed. ‘Killing off’ these two proposals is the right term as without them there will be more dead birds, more contaminated soils, and for regular consumers of game meat there’ll be children with lowered IQs, there’ll be more chronic kidney disease and higher blood pressure. It’s lead, which is highly toxic - there is no safe limit.

It’s time to let go of lead” says the Executive Secretary of AEWA. Poisoning with lead ammunition when there are non-toxic alternatives available is just not on anymore (further information here). Yes we’ve made great strides in the UK with the hunting community going for a voluntary ban on lead shot by 2025. We have worked well with them and will continue to do so, as without regulation it is going to be difficult to achieve a non-toxic future. And just as this great initiative was announced in February 2020, the UK left the EU so could not add any voice, or any votes, to these current EU restriction proposals.

A recent German paper reviewing the REACH processes could not be stronger in its conclusion: “A total restriction [on lead ammunition] would reduce wildlife poisoning, harmonize provisions of national and European laws, and foster any efforts to decelerate loss of biodiversity.” And pollution is often a big issue for German people with two thirds of the population considering environmental protection and climate change mitigation to be a high-priority challenge.

In these pandemic times it seems out of kilter for health-protective policy to be bumped from the agenda or not supported. At a time when much of the discourse is about seizing the opportunity to create a better environmentally sustainable future why would we not chose a solution that is right for health and the environment?

So what’s the deal with the alternatives to lead? A Danish hunter who has been using non-lead shot for decades says the problem is not the 25g of shot in the cartridge, it’s the 80kg of person behind the gun… In France where much of the important ecological research on lead shot has been undertaken, studies of shooting efficiency found it isn’t about the ammunition but other environmental and human factors such as wind speed and hunter alertness.

Many in the European hunting community know that lead is dead and support the non-toxic ammunition alternatives. Just look at the words from senior shooting leaders. These are the individuals who have led European hunting communities - they have deep insights and experience and know how the politics of shooting and industry work:

“It is our firm opinion, one evidently shared by those who studied the issue from an independent and dispassionate perspective in ECHA, including their expert committees, that lead shot requires complete restriction and replacement. This is for the long-term good of wildlife, human health and hunting…

There will no doubt be strong lobbying from those wishing to maintain the status quo and unpick the robust ECHA proposal, but we know that it is not a matter of if lead ammunition will be restricted in the future, it is a matter of when. This issue has dragged on for decades and it is time to act. We therefore urge you not to succumb to suggestions that it is not possible to change. It is.”

So, knowing from these shooting leaders’ that change can be done, we need to ask EU citizens, their governments and politicians these 5 questions:

  • In a modern society is it acceptable for a minority of people to continue to release poisons which kill our collective natural heritage and impact our health through the food that we eat (whether that be game meat or crops grown where lead has landed or degraded) despite there being perfectly good alternatives?
  • Do we want a planet with 10s of 1000s of tonnes of lead released every year into the European environment where, amongst other negative impacts, it will reduce the immune capability of those exposed to it, be they people or wildlife? With all the emerging infectious diseases of our generations does this really sound sensible?
  • Is it really sensible not to follow the science? Maybe the current pandemic will make people once again value facts not speculation and obfuscation. The scandal of the blocking of removing lead from petrol when it threatened the car industry needs to be a lesson to us all about how many people can be poisoned before political action stands up to the vested interests.
  • Why on earth is this taking so long? Physician Dioscorides, at the time of Emperor Nero, wrote that ‘lead makes the mind give way’. The first birds with lead poisoning from shot ingestion were reported in the mid-19th Century. Denmark and Netherlands banned all lead shot ~25 years ago so why is progress so slow and tortuous?
  • And importantly at this time, do we want to ‘Build Back Better’ after coronavirus or do we want big business to ‘lock in’ the existing polluting harms and perpetuate this scandal? We have a choice.

What I want to see:

  • The European Commission ensuring the wetlands restriction proposal is supported and brought to the REACH Committee.
  • EU Member States accepting that lead is dead and taking the health-protective initiative to back the two ECHA proposals under REACH.
  • The European Parliament committing to the new European Green Deal which explicitly provides the framework for a healthy lead-free future.

And at a time when the pandemic has brought about a renewed appreciation of the natural world, with the birds keeping us connected to the joy of life at a time of great human tragedy please let us choose health and once and for all to put an end to this toxic madness.