Researchers Find Lead Contamination in Shotgun-Harvested Deer
Oct. 21, 2020
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — A recent study by an interdisciplinary research team consisting
of several Illinois Wesleyan University faculty members, an IWU alumna, and a local
veterinarian found that nearly half of ground venison packets from shotgun-harvested
deer may contain metal fragments –– including lead –– potentially leading to adverse
health effects for humans and wildlife.
This study, published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, involved Illinois Wesleyan faculty members across the sciences: George C. and Ella
Beach Lewis Endowed Professor of Biology Given Harper, Associate Professor of Chemistry Manori Perera and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Wilson, as well as environmental studies alumna Genevieve Alexander ’14.
“I have published numerous papers with IWU students and chemistry faculty, so I knew
the importance of having an interdisciplinary team,” said Harper. “Dr. Wilson’s expertise
in toxicology was critical to the success of the project, and he did an outstanding
job in determining the potential human health impacts of lead. Dr. Perara’s expertise
in analytical chemistry helped us in quantifying lead levels, and Dr. Matt Fraker
(Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) made the X-rays and helped us to locate the metal
fragments. I was also very pleased that Genevieve (Jinny) Alexander contributed to
all aspects of the project.”
The researchers found that lead shotgun slugs can fragment upon impact with the deer
and lodge in the surrounding tissue, contaminating the meat. “Packets in which metal
was present contained 1-2 fragments, so that means about one out of every four venison
burgers will have a lead fragment in it,” explained Wilson.
Furthermore, more than half of the meat processing plants surveyed for this study
reported mixing deer meat from multiple hunters in their venison packets, which may
contaminate the meat from deer tissue without shotgun fragments.
Based on Perera’s chemical analysis, the research team predicted that one serving
of ground venison containing a metal fragment could have a lead concentration between
6.4 to 51.8 μg g−1. Because lead is a highly toxic substance, even trace amounts can
impact not only humans but also the wildlife that scavenge meat from abandoned carcasses.
“Readers should not be scared away from eating venison,” Wilson assured. “But they
should know that by harvesting the venison with lead shotgun slugs, they increase
their risk of lead exposure.”
The researchers also found that none of the archery-harvested deer contained fragments
of lead. Harper, a deer hunter and venison-lover himself, advocates for the use of
non-lead slugs in order to continue responsibly hunting, which according to him is
“a vital, necessary management tool to control the white-tailed deer population in Illinois.”
“The use of non-lead ammunition is not only beneficial to human health, but it benefits
wildlife such as bald eagles that scavenge unrecovered deer and offal piles,” Harper