USask researchers discover lead in bullets spreads in small fragments, advocate switch to copper

Canadian Light Source - bullet through ballistic gelatin . Global News/Emily-May Simmonds

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have used the synchrotron at the Canadian Light Source to study bullets.

They wanted to find out how bullet fragments spread in big game shots. Researchers studying the issue in the past have relied on medical radiography, however, that procedure cannot distinguish lead from other materials.

Using the Canadian Light Source, they were able to figure out that pieces of lead broke up into small fragments, and could spread as far as 15 cm from the impact.

To do the research and simulate hunting, the team shot a bullet at ballistic gelatin.

“I wasn’t surprised that bullets can produce hundreds of lead fragments,” said Leontowich, who is a hunter himself. “But I was surprised to see that the fragments can go down to the size of a single human blood cell.”

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The lead in those bullets is toxic to the humans who eat the harvested meat, and to scavenger animals that feast on remains left in the field. USask researchers are hoping this will convince hunters to switch to copper bullets.

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“I think a lot of people don’t realize that most hunting ammunition contains lead and that the fragments can end up in the food that you eat but they’re already on the shelf at hunting stores in Saskatoon, their copper-based bullets,” said Adam Leontowich, Canadian Light Source associate scientist.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island included warnings about the health and environmental risks of lead bullets in their 2021-22 hunting regulation handbooks.

“There are other forms of rifle ammunition on the market made of non-toxic materials like copper that work just as well,” said Leontowich. “You don’t have to buy a new rifle to use them. And you can enjoy that moose steak or elk burger and not have to worry about ingesting lead fragments or about the fragments spreading into the environment.”

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