Debate over lead in venison continues

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The North Dakota physician who conducted a study showing the presence of lead in venison samples says there's still much to learn about the potential health risks of shooting deer with lead rifle bullets.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The North Dakota physician who conducted a study showing the presence of lead in venison samples says there's still much to learn about the potential health risks of shooting deer with lead rifle bullets.

Earlier this year, Dr. William Cornatzer collected 95 packages of ground venison from food pantries in North Dakota. The Bismarck, N.D., dermatologist, who is also a deer hunter, then did CT scans and fluoroscopy X-rays of the meat to check for metal or other particle fragments. Of the 95 samples tested, 53 showed the presence of metal fragments. Proof of the lead content came later, in six of

25 samples sent to a lab in Iowa for further testing.

News of Cornatzer's findings prompted the North Dakota Department of Health last week to ask food pantries across the state to dispose of thousands of pounds of ground venison. Minnesota followed suit, advising food shelves not to distribute venison until more information was available.

The Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank in Duluth received 3,600 pounds of venison last fall to distribute to its 140 food shelves, soup kitchens and shelters. Some of that has been distributed.


"We have not had a recall. We are just in a holding pattern. It's a product hold," said Shaye Moris, executive director of Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank. "We told our agencies the same -- to hold the product."

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture took samples of Second Harvest's venison on Monday for analysis, but no results were available by Friday, Moris said.

The Iowa Department of Public Health lifted an advisory on venison Wednesday after tests failed to find more than trace amounts of lead in venison samples. One reason, Cornatzer said, is that Iowa hunters use shotguns with slugs to hunt deer instead of the lead bullets used in North Dakota.

"This is not a problem with food shelves specifically," Cornatzer said. "It's a problem with all hunters" who use lead bullets.

"This is a preliminary study. This is not something that's the end-all of research that needs to be done on this," said Cornatzer, who was assisted in the study by Dr. Ted Fogerty, a Bismarck radiologist and chairman of the radiology department at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "Somebody needs to do additional studies looking at deer that have been shot in various areas [of the body].

"This was not a big study, and it doesn't tell us all the answers. It doesn't tell us where the lead is."

Confirming the lead

Cornatzer said examination of five meat samples with what appeared to be metal fragments confirmed the metal was lead. Additionally, a single half-inch piece, one of 20 random samples sent to the Iowa lab, tested positive for the metal.


"The most disconcerting thing we found is when we dug out [fragments] in fluoroscopy, we couldn't feel them," Cornatzer said. "It's not like a lead BB in a pheasant. You could not feel them at all."

A fluoroscopy X-ray, in lay terms, is a real-time scan that allowed the researchers to watch while they probed the meat.

Cornatzer became interested in the lead issue after reading research from The Peregrine Fund, a conservation group that has studied the effects of lead exposure from bullets on condors who feed on carcasses or gut piles. He serves on the fund's board and will discuss his research during a May conference.

Dr. Brad Aafedt, a radiologist at Altru in Grand Forks, said he found Cornatzer's study interesting. Although he has never tested pieces of venison, Aafedt said the diagnostic techniques used to detect metal in the samples are sound. Neither technique would determine the type of metal, he said.

Loreeta Canton, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the venison samples were sent for additional testing to determine the presence of lead. The amount of lead in the five samples that showed traces of metal in the X-rays ranged from as high as 55,000 milligrams per kilogram to as low as 4,200 milligrams per kilogram. Of the 20 random samples set to the Iowa lab, one piece tested for lead at 120 milligrams per kilogram, and 19 showed no lead, she said.

The big question, Canton said, is what those numbers mean to human health. She said the health department has contacted the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for more information.

Meanwhile, Canton said, officials from the state Health, Agriculture and Game and Fish Department met Tuesday. They'll develop guidelines for meat processors and hunters on minimizing lead risks before fall. She said the health department also has started asking the families of children who show high levels of lead whether they eat venison and how often. "That's a question we've never asked before," she said.




Cornatzer's findings are getting a reaction from some hunting groups.

"I very much question the gravity with which they say we have a problem," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "Any bullet will fragment, but common sense is what we have to stick with. As far as bullets fragmenting and floating like powder or dust throughout the body, that's not rational. It's not realistic. It doesn't happen."

Johnson urges further analysis by state agencies to determine if there is a risk to human health.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, in a prepared statement posted on its Web site, criticized what it called "the lack of peer review" and what it described as the overreaction by North Dakota and Minnesota health officials.

"Furthermore, we question whether a dermatologist is even qualified to render these opinions, particularly in light of the absence of any scientific findings published by qualified experts," the NSSF said in its statement.

Christopher Gross of Superior also was critical. He's an analytical chemist who works for North Shore Analytical Inc. in Duluth. After reading newspaper reports about the study, Gross wrote a letter to the North Dakota Health Department faulting the use of X-rays to detect the presence of lead.

Within days, Gross' letter was making the rounds in

e-mail circles.

In a telephone interview, Gross confirmed he wrote the letter and that he also had heard back from North Dakota health officials, who were able to address some of his concerns.

"I don't want people to think I'm a big authority on this," said Gross, who described himself as a concerned citizen and hunter with a little more scientific background than most. "When I read the article and saw a medical technique was being used for, in essence, environmental analysis or food product analysis -- that isn't a proper technique.

"I don't want my recreational activity to be poisoning the environment or anyone. I just think cautionary statements or measures like this should be backed up by good science."

Cornatzer said his study is solid.

"This was all done with an appropriate number of samples," Cornatzer said. "I talked to a statistician before doing this, and he recommended how to get random samples, so this is a fairly sound scientific study.

"Nothing is better than a high-definition CT scan for looking at metal fragments. This is not witchcraft or anything like that."

Fogerty, the Bismarck radiologist who assisted Cornatzer with the study, was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Cornatzer plans no further research but will stay in contact with state departments to offer guidance. Until more information is available, he said the safest solution is to switch to bullets other than lead that don't fragment. He recently bought premium copper bullets for his rifle at a cost of about $40 per box.

"This shouldn't pose any threat to deer hunting," Cornatzer said. "Safe bullets already are out there."

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