Why should the poorest among us be subjected to a health hazard?

Sometimes it is hard to be a newspaper editor — to point out problems that no one wants to hear about. But we firmly believe it is necessary to understand problems in order to solve them. And, if they are aired publicly, people will be warned of dangers and readers might work together to combat the problems.

Here’s one example. Generous hunters can donate venison they don’t want to local food pantries here and across the state. This way, a hunter who has gotten the trophy he sought but doesn’t want the meat doesn’t let it go to waste; the nutritious venison is eaten by someone who might otherwise go hungry.

According to the Venison Donation Coalition, founded in 1999 and servicing 52 counties across New York State, an average of 39 tons of venison are donated to food banks each year, serving a grand total of 4 million meals.

“An American tradition helping others” is the slogan of the coalition. How could there possibly be a problem with that?

We didn’t see one either until we got a phone call from Michael DiBenedetto. He lives in the Catskills where he has worked as a volunteer for five years helping golden eagles. That made him aware of the poisoning caused by lead bullets. DiBenedetto had read online our Nov. 10 editorial, “We need to bite the bullet and change to safer ammunition.”

We had written how lead is poisonous to both people and animals.

What should be a healthy, natural way to eat — say, venison — becomes instead a source of poisoning. Symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may include tingling in the hands and feet, irritability, memory loss, and inability to have children; although lead can affect any of the body’s organ systems, the brain is the organ most sensitive to lead poisoning.

Our reporter H. Rose Schneider looked into DiBenedetto’s assertions and found there is currently no way that food pantry consumers are warned about the dangers posed by lead in their meat. JoAnn Dwyer of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York said the food bank follows the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act and that venison is labeled with the type of meat it is, its weight, and where it was processed.

Rich’s Custom Meat Shop in Greenville, which, according to the coalition website, processes venison for food pantries, said there is no process that seeks to remove potential lead contaminants.

Another processor in Greene County, Dana Garramone, whom we admire both for her generosity in donating her shop and time to the venison coalition and for her skills, says any meat damaged by bullets is discarded.

While we laud her for her care, we are mindful of a study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that showed fragments from lead rifle ammunition can peel off and become lodged in tissue as far as 14 inches from where the bullet entered. The small bullet fragments are often not seen or felt when butchering an animal.

Minnesota could serve as a model for New York, requiring donated venison to go through a registered processor, which among other specifications must screen for lead.

DiBenedetto said he had been shunted from one New York State office to the next — including the governor’s office, the Department of Environmental Conservation, Agriculture and Markets, and the Department of Health.

He has finally gotten word from the Department of Health, he says, that cards will be offered to consumers of the wild meat. The department confirmed for us that a poster and tip cards are being developed to address concerns about the possibility of lead particles in donated venison. This is a step in the right direction but it is not enough.

Why should the poorest among us be subjected to a health hazard?

Scientists in California published a consensus statement in 2013, citing six different scholarly works, that said, “Lead-based ammunition is a significant source of lead exposure in humans that ingest wild game.”

Sampling venison in food pantries across Wisconsin, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found lead in 15 percent of commercially processed samples and in 8 percent of samples from hunters, declaring the situation an “indeterminate public health hazard.”

The study predicted that blood lead levels in children who ate the contaminated meat would vary between 3.5 and 34 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Experts use 5 micrograms as a cutoff for concern, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children are the most likely to suffer serious effects from lead poisoning.

The simplest solution is the one we advocated for in our editorial last month: Use bullets that aren’t made of lead.

As we wrote earlier, non-lead ammunition got a bad reputation in the 1980s for being high-priced and inaccurate, having a tendency to foul the barrel. But, since then, manufacturers undertook extensive research and development, solving many of the problems with inaccuracy and dropping the price of non-lead ammunition.

Federal, Hornady, Winchester, and Remington all make non-lead bullets that cost the same as high-quality lead bullets. We urge the shooters in our midst to give them a try.

Those with the most to gain by having accurate bullets are soldiers.

In 2010, the United States Army, fighting in Afghanistan, fielded its new “Enhanced Performance Rounds” — often called the “green bullet” because it has a copper core instead of lead, according to a report by C. Todd Lopez, on the U.S. Army website.

“The vast majority of everything we’ve got back from the field is positive,” Lopez quoted Lt. Col Jeffrey K. Woods as saying.

“The new Enhanced Performance Round, or EPR, is not yaw-dependent — it delivers the same effectiveness in a soft target no matter its yaw angle,” writes Lopez. “Soft target” is the military’s euphemism for an enemy soldier.

“On M855’s best day,” Woods is quoted as saying, referring to the lead bullets, “with that great performance that you will see, you’re going to see that type of performance out of the EPR — but you will see it every time,” Woods said.

“We were a little skeptical — like any change in the military, a little skeptical,” Staff Sergeant  Jason Hopkins is quoted as saying about the green bullets. “But coming up here and shooting it and seeing the performance of it — I'm sold on it. The trajectory and the ballistics are just as good as the M855 and the penetration is far superior to the M855.

“It looks like just a more consistent round,” he continued. “With the M855 you may not always get the same thing — but everything we’ve seen with this EPR has been dead consistent every time.”

As far as the new round's accuracy, Hopkins said, “It’s on par if not better.”

In short, the green bullets are both more accurate and more consistent. We urge hunters to use them instead of lead. The venison they eat will be safe and so will the food they donate.

In the meantime, we commend DiBenedetto for his efforts and we urge those who get wild game from a food pantry to be cautious.

We’re all skeptical of change, not just those in the military. But sometimes we have to change in order to survive.

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