Signs of Sustainability: Why we need to get lead out

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Lead in our environment remains a major source of damaging contamination for people and wildlife. Deposition of lead into the environment is a danger to the health, safety and general welfare of our communities.

The effects of lead on living things have been noted and studied for hundreds of years. Prolonged or repeated exposure to low levels of lead may result in an accumulation in body tissues and exert adverse effects on the blood, nervous systems, heart, endocrine and immune systems, kidneys and reproduction.

Reproductive effects have been exhibited in both males and females. Paternal effects may include decreased sex drive, impotence, sterility and adverse effects on the sperm, which may increase the risk of birth defects. Maternal effects may include miscarriage and stillbirths in exposed women or women whose husbands were exposed, abortion, sterility or decreased fertility and abnormal menstrual cycles. Lead crosses the placenta and may affect the fetus, causing birth defects, mental retardation, behavioral disorders and death during the first year of childhood.

The adverse effects of lead on the development of young children is well known. Low birth weight, reduction in intelligence, learning disabilities and behavioral problems are common in children exposed to lead. It has been determined that there is no safe blood lead level for children. In fact, there is probably no safe level of exposure to lead for human health.

Lead has severe impacts on wildlife as well. Thousands of birds, mammals and other creatures are poisoned by lead every year, mostly from ingesting lead pellets or fragments from spent ammunition.

This a serious problem since lead is a persistent environmental pollutant and it takes lead a very long time to be naturally removed from the environment by geochemical processes—probably on the order of millions of years.

Lead poisoning is a completely preventable disease. Primary prevention of lead exposure is the most important and significant strategy to protect children and adults from lead exposures.

Much has been done to remove lead from our environment. Leaded gasoline was banned in the middle 1990s. Lead has been removed from most paint products, and the Environmental Protection Agency has exerted significant control over the removal of lead paint and other lead containing products.

Most lead water pipes have been replaced with iron, copper or plastic pipes, though there are still lead contamination problems with lead water supply pipes still in use. Most domestic water supplies are safe, but some water sources may be naturally contaminated with low levels of lead (and arsenic and other toxic metals). Some of this water supply contamination comes from leaching of lead from SuperFund sites and coal ash piles into local aquifers, as well as natural sources of lead.

One of the most serious sources of lead contamination in our environment today is the deposition of large amounts of lead into the environment by recreational hunting, outdoor shooting ranges, rod and gun clubs and related activities. Shooting ranges and gun clubs, in particular, should be responsible for the containment and reclamation of lead from the environment or be required to use non-lead shot. If not, the practice of using lead shot is socially and environmentally irresponsible and reprehensible.

California has banned lead shot for most purposes, beginning this month, and other states and municipalities are considering banning lead shot as well. Steel shot and other non-lead alloys are perfectly acceptable for most shooting purposes.

Locally, Lansing resident and Sustainable Tompkins President Gay Nicholson and many of her neighbors along Salmon Creek have been protesting the use of lead shot by the Lansing Rod and Gun Club and the subsequent contamination for the Creek and its environs. Their protests have been met with strong resistance from club members and their NRA lawyer.

The county has the ability to ban the use of lead shot by shooting ranges and rod and gun clubs, of which there are 12 in Tompkins County. Nicholson presented arguments for the ban of lead shot at shooting ranges and rod and gun clubs to the Planning, Energy and Environmental Quality subcommittee of the county Legislature last month on behalf of Citizens for a Healthy Salmon Creek Watershed.

Given the excessively toxic effects of lead, it is time for the County government to make a serious attempt to end one of the principal sources of lead contamination in our local environment. If you are concerned about lead contamination, now is the time to contact your county Legislature representative to let them know that you would like to see lead shot eliminated from our environment.

Tom Shelley is a member of the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council and a local environmental activist

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