Europe and Central Asia
22 Jul 2016

Lead: bad for birds and people

Lead pellets attack a bird's digestive system, so they starve to death. Photo: Shutterstock
By Wouter Langhout

Lead is bad for you.

Already in Roman times, people were apparently experiencing the harmful effects of consuming lead, which was then used as a sweetener for wine. Logically, over time, the use of lead has become more and more restricted, and its use in gasoline and jewellery is banned in the EU. However, other uses of lead persist. As always there is a strong resistance from the industry against regulation that they feel interferes with their business model, even when that business model involves releasing tonnes of toxic material into the environment.

Birds are one of the main victims of the continued use of lead. For birds, like for people, lead is highly toxic. If they are exposed to lead, it could lead to a gruesome death – the lead paralyses their digestive system so the birds basically die of starvation, having limped around for days and days.

The main way most species are exposed is though ‘grit’. Grit are the small stones that many birds use in the wild to help them digest their food. In a fascinating quirk of evolution, birds have learned that by ingesting grit in their gizzard (part of the digestive tract) they can grind their food more easily, as the stones help them do the munching.

Unfortunately, lead shotgun pellets are often the same size as grit, so many birds often mistakenly ingest the pellets instead of stones. To make matters worse, in some wetlands there are more shotgun pellets in the sediment than natural stones, a legacy of years of hunting with lead. This is taking its toll on ducks, waders and terrestrial birds. The dead or dying birds also regularly get eaten by predators such as eagles and kites, which then in turn also suffer from lead poisoning.

Lead has been linked to population declines of the Common Pochard, the White-headed Duck and the Egyptian Vulture, all of which are threatened with extinction. The last two species are at precariously low population levels, and we cannot afford to lose even a single bird.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has consulted experts on the risks of lead shot in wetlands. BirdLife Europe has together with the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) submitted a pile of evidence which shows the need for banning lead shot.

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The evidence also shows that a ban in wetlands only, which is currently proposed by ECHA, is not enough. Many birds such as Grey Partridges and Whooper Swans die from lead shot they ingest outside wetlands. In addition, experience with past bans shows that you really need to act on the sale and possession of lead shot, as the enforcement in many EU Member States is too limited and it gets very messy when you only ban the lead shot for some species or in some areas.

There is nothing unimaginable about banning lead shot. The Netherlands and Denmark have already done it. The only sector that would need to adapt is the ammunition industry, but that is a poor argument to continue harming birds and the people that love them.

We are looking to the European Union to save the birds from a gruesome death. ECHA and the EU Member States together can make this happen, if they have the vision and the will to do what is needed.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.