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EPA Rejects Ban on Toxic Lead Fishing Gear

Agency Refuses to Address Preventable Poisoning That Kills Millions of Birds, Wildlife Every Year


Ignoring long-established science on the dangers of lead poisoning in the wild, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has denied a petition to ban toxic lead fishing sinkers that frequently kill loons, swans, cranes, and other wildlife. A coalition of conservation, hunting, and veterinary groups had petitioned EPA in August to ban lead in fishing tackle and in bullets and shot for hunting. (The use of lead ammo is no longer legal in the California condor’s habitat range, but it is legal in most other parts of the nation.)

The agency issued a partial denial of the portion of the petition dealing with regulation of lead ammunition in September, and has now issued its final determination which also denies the portion of the petition on fishing sinkers.

Spent lead from ammunition and lost fishing tackle needlessly poisons, kills, and harms millions of wild birds and other animals every year and endangers public health.

“Under the Obama administration, the EPA seems to have lost its will to regulate toxic substances, even in the face of overwhelming scientific information about the harm to wildlife and threats to human health,” said Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy.

“The EPA’s failure to act is inexcusable, given what we know about how toxic lead is to wildlife and the extensive science linking lead poisoning in wildlife to ammunition and fishing weights,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are plenty of safe and available alternatives to lead products for these outdoor sports, so there’s no good reason for this poisoning to continue.”

In August the Center for Biological Diversity, the American Bird Conservancy, and other groups formally petitioned the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban lead in bullets and shot for hunting, as well as lead in fishing tackle. The petition referenced nearly 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers illustrating the widespread dangers of lead poisoning form these sources. More than 70 organizations in 27 states are supporting the lead ban, including groups representing birders, hunters, zoologists, scientists, American Indians, physicians, veterinarians, and public employees. Cranes, ducks, swans, loons, geese, and other waterfowl ingest lead fishing sinkers lost in lakes and rivers, mistaking them for food or grit, and thousands are poisoned each year.

“The EPA has the clear authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate lead in any way it sees fit and it is not up to the petitioners to formulate the ‘least burdensome’ regulation,” said Fry. “The scientific data in the petition demonstrated the need for regulation to prevent poisoning of wildlife, and it is up to the EPA to formulate the proper regulations.”

Ironically, the EPA declared last week “National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week” to raise awareness about the dangers of lead exposure to humans. Major efforts to control lead in paint, gasoline, and other products have reduced lead in the environment, but spent lead from hunting and fishing is still a widespread wildlife killer.

“We don’t need public relations stunts like ‘Lead Poisoning Prevention Week’ from the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency; we must have substantive action to prevent the known, widespread, unnecessary and ongoing lead poisoning of bald eagles, condors, loons, and other wildlife cherished by all Americans,” said Miller. “The agency has attempted to punt on this issue, but we’re not going to let it walk away from taking action on the preventable poisoning of birds and other animals.”

Lead is an extremely toxic substance that is dangerous to people and wildlife even at low levels. Exposure can cause a range of health effects, from acute poisoning and death to long-term problems such as reduced reproduction, inhibition of growth, and damage to neurological development. Wildlife is poisoned when animals scavenge on carcasses shot and contaminated with lead-bullet fragments or pick up and eat spent lead-shot pellets or lost fishing weights, mistaking them for food or grit. Animals can die a painful death from lead poisoning or suffer for years from its debilitating effects.

An estimated 10 million to 20 million birds and other animals die each year from lead poisoning in the United States.

Jeff Miller is a conservation advocate for the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.

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