Lead ammunition: executive summary
Official title: Study to Gather Information on Uses of Lead Ammunition and Non-lead Alternatives in Non-military Activities in Canada
Notice to reader
This study, commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada, was conducted by Toxecology - Environmental Consulting Ltd. Its content represents the findings and opinions of the authors. It does not necessarily represent the policies or the views of Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The Government of Canada assumes no liability for any damage, injury, loss of property, loss of data, loss of any and all resources, or any negative influence what-so-ever, that may result from any and all usage of the information contained within this document. Readers are cautioned to use the information contained in this document at entirely their own risk.
Information contained below is provided for information purposes only and are intended to provide an update on the use and release of lead ammunition and non-lead alternative in Canada.
Lead (Pb) is a natural metallic element which is highly toxic. Its widespread presence in the environment is the result of many historical industrial and commercial activities, as well as the use of consumer products such as ammunition. Canadians are exposed to lead in food, drinking water, air, dust and soil. This exposure can result in health risks including neurotoxicity, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, renal and reproductive effects. For example, consuming game meat containing lead ammunition fragments even once a week could impact on a child’s development. Wildlife such as scavengers and predators like eagles can be poisoned by eating spent lead ammunition and related fragments, or by consuming wounded or dead prey containing lead fragments.
Although waterfowl hunting with lead ammunition is prohibited in Canada, these activities represent only a small fraction of ammunition used here. To reduce lead exposure and the associated risks, the Government of Canada has developed a Risk Management Strategy for Lead.
Annual ammunition consumption
Each year, approximately 375 million ammunition cartridges are imported into Canada and more than 90% come from the United States. The vast majority contain lead and most are sold through sporting goods retailers. Typically, ammunition cartridges consist of four parts: the projectile (bullet or shot), the case, the primer and the propellant (gunpowder). These components are manufactured separately and then assembled. The amount of lead in each cartridge varies depending on whether it is designed for use in a shotgun or contained within the projectile used in a rifle/pistol cartridge. In both cases, there are a wide variety of sizes containing varying quantities of lead.
Ammunition is used for sport shooting, hunting and law enforcement activities. Military applications were excluded from this study. It is estimated that around 8% of the Canadian population participate in hunting activities and there are approximately 2 million firearms licence holders in Canada. Between sport shooters and hunters, about 40% do both activities.
Canada currently has about 1025 shooting ranges with over 225,000 members that vary widely in size and type of facility. Most shooting range locations in Canada (more than 800) have outdoor firing ranges. Each year approximately 5,000 tonnes of lead is discharged on these ranges. They also host different activities: 65% have rifle ranges, 64% have handgun ranges and 41% have shotgun ranges.
Based on hunting harvest data from the Canadian Wildlife Service, annual provincial and territorial hunting statistics and survey replies from hunters, approximately 40 to 80 tonnes of lead are used each year in hunting activities in Canada. However, under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, hunters of waterfowl must only use non-lead ammunition. In 2017, the vast majority of waterfowl hunters (more than 97%) reported using steel shot. Outside this legislated non-lead market, the uses of non-lead ammunition in hunting were found to be minimal.
Publicly-available information about annual ammunition purchases by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Correctional Services Canada, Public Works Government Services Canada and provincial/municipal police forces, shows that an estimated 120 tonnes of lead is used each year for law enforcement in Canada.
Release to the environment
The majority of lead ammunition used in Canada is discharged on shooting ranges and is not recovered or reclaimed. Out of about 5,000 tonnes, less than 200 tonnes is recovered and recycled. In addition, lead dust can be released into the air particularly at closed indoor ranges, or transferred to hands and clothes and then to other people. The elevated levels of lead in the blood of recreational shooters and their families as well as workers at firing ranges are well documented. Scientific literature also reveals that outdoor shooting ranges are renowned for having extremely high content of metallic lead in the soil. As a result, lead exposure and poisoning has also been documented in the wildlife that forage in contaminated areas around shooting ranges.
As previously mentioned, between 40 and 80 tonnes of lead is used in hunting activities every year. Exposure to lead from this source is a concern because fragments from lead rifle ammunition can peel off and become lodged in tissue as much as 36 cm (14 inches) from the point of bullet entry. Consuming contaminated game meat can result in elevated blood lead levels. In addition, birds and mammals that feed on the gut piles and dead carcasses can also ingest lead. There is extensive evidence to document mortality rates of birds such as bald eagles, Stellar’s sea eagles, condors and ravens.
Available alternatives to lead include steel, tungsten and bismuth-based shot for shotguns, and copper bullets for hunting rifles. Copper or copper-zinc alloy (gilding metal) bullets or remnants are not expected to pose toxic risks to humans, scavengers, predators or the wider environment. These non-toxic alternatives have all been approved by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service based on toxicity evaluations. They are made by all the major manufacturers that supply the Canadian market and offer the equivalent performance of traditional lead ammunition. Nevertheless there is significant reluctance amongst ammunition users to switch to non-lead ammunition alternatives.
While the amount of ammunition used in hunting and law enforcement has been steady in recent years with no major change expected in the near future, sport shooting has grown in popularity over the last 5 years. This trend is expected to continue. The resistance to moving away from traditional lead ammunition remains strong within the recreational shooting community. As a result voluntary adoption of alternatives is not expected. In the absence of any additional restrictions, use of lead ammunition is expected to increase over the next decade and the level of lead released into the environment is expected to increase from approximately 5,000 tonnes (2016) to 5,800 tonnes by 2025.
Risk management practices
Concerns regarding the risks associated with lead ammunition have led to complete bans on lead ammunition in some European countries including Denmark, The Netherlands and Sweden. Under the Canada-USA 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty, both Canada and the United States prohibit the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl. While this requirement reduces scavengers and predators mortality levels, it is restricted to waterfowl and so only applies to a small fraction of the domestic ammunition market.
In the United States, restrictions on lead ammunition beyond waterfowl hunting have not been applied nationally, largely due to an absence of federal authority. Ammunition is exempt from the US Toxic Substances Control Act and powerful lobby groups support continued use of traditional ammunition. Some states such as California have introduced additional controls. In Canada, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the manufacturing, import, sale and use of lead ammunition can be controlled.
American manufacturers of ammunition already make lead-free alternatives. The increased demand for lead-free ammunition resulting from the Californian ban is likely to improve its availability throughout North America. Even though non-toxic alternatives are an effective way to address risks, studies in both Europe and North America indicate there remains significant resistance to adopting lead-free alternatives.
Report a problem or mistake on this page
- Date modified: