There is a consensus among scientists that lead-based bullets poisons millions of animals per year and have the potential to kill American children — yet the National Rifle Association (NRA) is launching a major effort, reminiscent of the campaign against science waged by the tobacco and oil lobbies, to deny the scientific facts.
Last Friday, the NRA announced a public campaign against scientists, environmental non-profits, and the San Diego Zoo who supported banning bullets made of the toxic element, seemingly in reaction to California legislation that would prohibit the ammunition throughout the state. The targeted groups, in the NRA’s mind, are part of what The Huffington Post described as “a conspiracy theory involving crooked scientists, phony research, and a shadowy network…conspiring to ban hunting.”
The centerpiece of this effort is a website called “Hunt For The Truth” (currently down for “scheduled maintenance”) purportedly “exposing the truth” about lead ammunition. The site claims, in a nutshell, that there is no conclusive proof about the harms caused by lead ammunition. The site, however, conspicuously lacks citations to peer-reviewed scientific evidence supporting their claims.
“There is no debate in the scientific community,” said toxicologist Myra Finkelstein, about the “ingestion of lead-based ammunition being a harm to humans or wildlife.” “I have not seen a published, peer-reviewed scientific article that refutes the evidence that lead poisoning from lead-based ammunition is a concern for human and wildlife help,” she added.
Finkelstein is an adjunct professor of wildlife biology at the University of Santa Cruz whose research focuses on lead and lead poisoning. She is one of the co-authors of a “consensus statement,” written this March, in which 30 leading toxicology experts summarized the facts surrounding the harm done by lead based ammunition.
The threat lead ammunition poses to animals and humans described in the paper are dramatic and scientifically uncontested. Lead ammunition is the second-largest source of lead in the United States, but a particularly dangerous one: lead bullets often fragment into hundreds of pieces upon impact, which often end up being ingested by wildlife (a conclusion supported by three different papers on the issue). The fragmented lead sickens and kills, by one estimate, 20 million animals per year. Lead ammunition poisoning, according to the consensus statement, is preventing the successful recovery of the nearly-extinct California Condor.
Four separate studies suggest lead ammunition may also be leading to elevated lead levels in humans, particularly some Native American populations, though whether or not the levels of lead exposure caused by lead ammunition is high to be dangerous is not yet clear. The symptoms of lead poisoning among humans are varied, but can include serious brain damage and death. Strong evidence links lead exposure to “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.”
The NRA campaign to wave away this evidence by employs science denial tactics that directly mirror the industry-funded efforts to dismiss the science linking CO2 to climate change and lung cancer to cigarettes. Much as a slew of mostly benign internal emails were used to impugn the credibility of climate scientists altogether, an article on Hunt For The Truth alleges that scientists are hiding data that would challenge the link between lead ammunition and lead poisoning to imply a massive behind-the-scenes conspiracy to obscure the truth. The lead data in question was published in 2012, and did not alter the scientific consensus on lead poisoning.
Like the tobacco industry, which argued that “other causes” might be behind lung cancer in many cases, Hunt For The Truth suggests that there are alternative vectors for lead exposure that may be leading to the diffusion of lead throughout the environment. Multiple independent methodologies, including autopsies and radiological studies, have confirmed lead ammunition is the cause of mass wildlife poisoning and death.
These specific tactics — implication that peer-reviewed scientific evidence cannot be trusted because scientists have an agenda, the spurious use of irrelevant studies to cast doubt on the expert consensus — make up part of a broader strategy to make settled scientific issues look “contested” in order to serve moneyed interests. This strategy has a history of migrating from industry to industry: the climate denial movement arguably grew out of an attempt by tobacco giant Phillip Morris to challenge settled science on cigarettes.
It’s not clear why the NRA is launching a massive effort to challenge the settled science on lead-based ammunition. Non-lead hunting ammunition is widely available, priced similarly to lead ammo, and equally effective. The organization, which has a habit of engaging in conspiratorial thinking, did claim the proponents of a ban on lead-based ammunition “will not rest until all lead ammunition, and ultimately hunting, is banned.”