Environmental surveillance investigating “elevated” lead levels in Victorian wetland ducks

Wedge-tailed eagles and other protected species are at risk of being paralyzed by lead poisoning in Victoria, according to wildlife advocates, with illegal lead ammunition still being used to shoot ducks.

Freedom of information documents reveal that humans are also at risk, with levels of lead in ducks “well above” food safety standards in four Victorian duck-hunting streams.

Secret email correspondence shows that state environmental control was aware of “elevated” lead levels in ducks from several wetlands used for hunting since 2018, but did not disclose the danger or issue any warning.

The CSIRO states that even minute traces of lead are extremely harmful to humans and animals, because the substance is so toxic.

EPA’s “Lead in duck – heads up” email to Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist reports 2018 sample tests that revealed high levels of lead in ducks from Serpentines Creek in western Victoria, Richardson’s Lagoon in Victoria north and Heart Morass and Macleod Morass in Gippsland.

The emails show that the ducks were re-tested in 2020 and were found to contain levels of lead that posed potential risks to human health.

There is an image of a brown duck floating on the water.
E-mails from the Environmental Protection Agency claim that high levels of lead in Victorian ducks could be harmful to humans.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“The new results arrived on Monday and confirmed high levels of lead in duck tissues. Again, well above FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand,” the 2020 email said.

The Chief Environmental Scientist told the EPA that the findings warranted further investigations to assess “potential risks to the environment and human health” and recommended that they take place before the start of the 2021 season.

That test is still ongoing.

Leaded ammunition still in use despite two decades on the ban list

The use of lead bullets for duck hunting is illegal in Victoria and has been since 2001 with the Game Management Authority stating that “lead is a toxic substance that can harm humans, wildlife and the environment. “.

Illegal lead ammunition was used in Victoria until last month: six hunters received penalties for possessing toxic bullets in Victorian wetlands during the 2022 season.

Sue Williams, head of the Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting project, said four recreational seasons of duck and quail hunting have been allowed to proceed since lead levels in ducks were first identified.

“It is simply unfathomable that the government has not issued any public warnings about lead levels found in ducks across our state,” he said.

“The fact that ducks have toxic lead levels in 20% of the wetlands surveyed suggests that the danger is frighteningly widespread, as duck hunting is allowed in thousands of public areas.”

Duck hunting
Lead ammunition is still used by Victorian duck hunters despite being illegal.(ABC News: Jane Cowan)

The EPA said that sampling and analysis on ducks in 2018 was undertaken to assess the presence of PFAS in ducks in various Victorian waterways and in 2020 further sampling and analysis for the presence of metals was carried out in traces.

“The results were inconclusive: the levels of lead in the liver samples were lower than those in the breast samples, which is contrary to what would be expected,” said chief environmental scientist Mark Taylor.

“The EPA will conduct further sampling and testing to better understand if there are any risks to human health from lead in ducks.”

In June 2021, then Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas was asked in the state parliament if lead levels were found above food safety guidelines in ducks in the Heart Morass and Macleod Morass wetlands.

In a written response in August 2021, the minister said his department was not aware of any “publicly” scientific studies available to determine lead levels in ducks in wetlands, despite the EPA having the test results completed. in 2018.

The Victorian government approved a full three-month duck hunting season in March of this year, but was pressured from across the political divide to follow WA, NSW and QLD and ban the sport altogether.

“There is no excuse for duck hunters who still use toxic lead shot and hunters caught doing so will be fined, their equipment confiscated, their licenses revoked and prosecuted,” a government spokesman said.

Lead poisoning can lead to a “horribly slow death” for birds

Lethal amounts of lead have been found in protected species in Victoria, according to Jordan Hampton of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

“As for, the birds of prey with by far the highest levels of lead exposure found in Australia are Victorian wedge-tailed eagles,” he said.

“If the affected animal is left where it is, the lead fragments become a threat to any scavenging wildlife.

“Lead does not go away, lead ammunition fired today will remain in our environment for decades to come.”

Lisa Palma, CEO of Wildlife Victoria, said lead poisoning is an insidious way for ducks, swans and wedge-tailed eagles to die.

“They suffer horribly slow deaths, whether they are injured or fed on leaded carcasses,” he said.

“They present with neurological and paralysis symptoms, are lazy, unable to eat and slowly die of hunger.”

The duck hunting group claims to have “zero tolerance” for offenders

Secretary of the Victorian Duck Hunters Association, Kev Gommers, said he was shocked to learn that lead ammunition was still used by hunters, more than two decades after it was banned.

“We don’t forgive him at all, I don’t know anyone who would be stupid enough to still use lead,” he said.

“We have zero tolerance for anyone who breaks these rules in our organization, goes against what we stand for.”

A brown duck with a blue head swims in the water.
Ducks and other wildlife can become fatally ill when exposed to lead fragments from ammunition.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Dr. Hampton, who is also a veterinarian, said more needs to be done to protect the environment, animals and humans, with lead ammunition still legal for quail hunting, commercial collection and shooting. aerial.

“There is a simple and immediate solution – we must ban all lead ammunition – not just for ducks,” said Dr. Hampton.

“This did not harm the automotive industry when unleaded gasoline was introduced.”

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