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Study targets lead levels in wild game

Hundreds of North Dakotans can help solve a health mystery by participating in a study that will investigate possible risks associated with eating wild game killed by lead bullets.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health will test the blood-lead levels of 680 people in the state. The study, which starts Friday, will compare blood -ead levels of people who eat venison with the levels of those who don't.

"We want to know whether there's any evidence that a person who consumes wild game has higher lead levels in their blood," said Dr. Stephen Pickard, epidemiologist with the state Health Department. "There are no studies that tell us that answer."

The preliminary results of the study, expected before fall hunting season, could influence national health policies, Pickard said.

North Dakota and Minnesota pulled donated venison from food pantry shelves this spring after fragments from lead bullets were found in the meat. National groups that coordinate venison donations criticized the moves, saying they were premature.

On Tuesday, an Idaho raptor group working to eliminate lead from ammunitions released a study that shows 80 percent of ground venison from deer killed with high-velocity lead bullets contains metal fragments. The Peregrine Fund says the study is further evidence people who eat meat from game animals shot with lead bullets risk exposure to the toxic metal.

Elevated blood-lead levels can cause high blood pressure and reduced kidney function in adults and permanent brain damage in young children.

Bullets shot from high-powered rifles can break into fragments so tiny they can't be felt, Pickard said. But experts don't know whether the lead from those fragments is absorbed, leading to higher blood-lead levels.

"We need to know what sort of message we send to the hunting public," he said.

Most hunters are not concerned about the issue because they've been eating venison their entire lives and haven't seen any adverse effects, said Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Still, he believes it's a good idea to investigate the issue further.

"Since the issue has been brought up, people want answers," he said. "There may be no effect at all (on human health) and that's what we hope."

He doubts the results will affect the number of people who hunt in the state, but it could affect their ability to help feed the hungry. Last year hunters donated 381 deer carcasses to food pantries in the state, he said.

"We want to see that program continue to grow," Steinwand said.

If you go

What: A health study investigating risks from consuming wild game shot with lead bullets.

When: 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. May 23 and May 27-30. No appointments will be taken.

Where: Fargo Cass Public Health, 401 3rd Ave. N.

Info: Researchers are looking for people who eat wild game often and those who don't. Participants must be at least 2 years old. The interview and blood test will take about 10 minutes. There also are testing sites in Bismarck, Jamestown, Grand Forks, Minot and Dickinson. For more information, call (701) 328-2372 or see

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534