06/13/2013 12:34 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Get the Lead out!

As a wildlife biologist and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I know first-hand the harm lead can cause to condors, eagles and other species of wildlife that ingest it. These mighty birds are innocent victims that often scavenge carcasses of big game animals left by hunters. Little do they know that what they have just eaten could kill them.

The fact that lead is toxic is old news. Decades ago, we took the lead out of paint, gasoline, cans used for food storage and even pipes. I remember growing up and seeing ads warning parents about lead paint in our homes. When I sold my first home, I had to fill out a lead paint disclosure form. And, as a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, I remember the Service requiring the use of non-lead ammunition for the hunting of waterfowl throughout the United States. Clearly, our country has been serious about getting the lead out for some time.

So even though hunters have used steel shot to hunt ducks for more than two decades, why are they still using lead bullets for hunting everything else? And why are there people stridently advocating to keep using lead ammunition for hunting? You would think they would be concerned about their own health if not for the health of our wildlife.

Fifty years of scientific research has shown that the presence of lead in the environment poses an ongoing threat to the health of the general public and the viability of our state's wildlife, including the California condor, bald eagle and golden eagle. Dr. Don Smith, Professor at the Department of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at UC Santa Cruz stated, "Lead-based ammunition is likely the greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the U.S."

Lead bullets fragment into tiny pieces when they hit an animal during hunting. These small lead fragments are then easily digested by humans as well as wildlife that eat the gut piles of dead animals. Animals also ingest lead when foraging in fields and pick up spent ammunition mistakenly. These lead fragments are highly toxic in the humans and animals that digest them. In humans, exposure to lead causes brain damage, learning problems and slowed growth. For children, no amount of lead exposure is acceptable. In wildlife, lead poisoning causes an agonizing death through paralysis and starvation.

Fortunately, California has always been a forward-thinking state on environmental issues, starting the dialogue on many of the significant conservation issues of our times. And so it is again, with the state Senate's Natural Resources Committee recent 7-1 vote in favor of Assembly Bill (AB) 711 (authored by Assemblymembers Anthony Rendon and Richard Pan), bringing California one step closer to enacting the first law in the nation that would require the use of non-lead ammunition for all hunting.

Lobbyists for the gun and lead ammo industry claim that there is insufficient science to justify requiring non-lead ammunition in the killing of wildlife. But those arguments ring hollow, especially after 30 nationally and internationally known scientists issued a strongly worded statement, "Health Risks from Lead-Based Ammunition in the Environment: A Consensus Statement of Scientists," on March 22.

These scientists are experts in lead and environmental health from universities, hospitals and laboratories from around the United States, England and Canada. And they were unequivocal in their assessment of lead's toxicity and their support for the reduction and elimination of the use of lead ammo in order to protect human and environmental health. Their research provides overwhelming evidence that lead is toxic; that lead ammunition in the environment poses significant health risks to humans and wildlife; that there is no level of lead exposure to children known to be without deleterious effects and that lead poisoning poses a serious and significant threat to wildlife.

Who would you trust with your health, your children's health and that of our wildlife: world renowned scientists or lobbyists from the gun and ammo industry?

There is clearly no scientifically valid reason why wildlife and humans should continue to be threatened with lead poisoning from lead ammunition. Opponents of the bill are just ignoring the facts - just like those who fought against getting lead out of gasoline, paint and cans used for food.

AB 711 is a reasonable and common sense solution to a public health and environmental threat. Given the toxic threat from lead ammunition, there is no legitimate reason to continue to use toxic lead ammunition when non-lead alternatives are effective and comparative in price.

The elected officials of California have an opportunity to once again be environmental leaders for our country and pass this first ever requirement for the use of non-lead ammunition. Hopefully some day, the thought of using lead ammunition to hunt will seem as foreign and foolish as using lead paint in our homes is today.