Very big close-up of a duck's head.

Environmental watchdog investigating ‘elevated’ lead levels in ducks from Victorian wetlands

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 humans are also at risk, with lead levels in ducks “well above” food safety standards at four Victorian duck-hunting waterways.

Secret email correspondence shows the state’s environmental watchdog has been aware of “elevated” lead levels in ducks from several wetlands used for hunting since 2018, but it has not made the public danger or issued any warnings.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria said that it was because the testing was inconclusive.

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

An email titled “Lead in duck — heads up” from the EPA to Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist reports on testing samples from 2018 which revealed high lead levels in ducks from Serpentines Creek in western Victoria, Richardson’s Lagoon in northern Victoria and Heart Morass and Macleod Morass in Gippsland.

Emails show the ducks were retested in 2020 and found to contain lead levels that posed potential risks to human health.

Emails from the Environmental Protection Agency say the elevated lead levels in Victoria’s ducks could be harmful to humans.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

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

The EPA was told by the Chief Environmental Scientist the results warranted further investigation to evaluate “potential risks to the environment and human health” and recommended it take place before the start of the 2021 season.

That testing is still underground.

Lead ammunition still in use despite two decades on 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, “lead is a toxic substance that can harm humans, wildlife and the environment”.

Illegal lead ammunition was being used in Victoria as recently as last month — six hunters received penalties for possession of toxic shot on Victorian wetlands during the 2022 season.

Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting project manager Sue Williams said four recreational duck and quail shooting seasons had been allowed to proceed since the lead levels in ducks were first identified.

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

“The fact ducks were found to have toxic lead levels in 20 per cent of wetlands surveyed suggests the danger is frighteningly widespread, given duck shooting is allowed in thousands of public areas.”

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

The EPA said the sampling and analysis on ducks in 2018 was undertaken to assess the presence of PFAS in ducks in various Victorian waterways and additional sampling and analysis was done in 2020 for the presence of trace metals.

“The results were inconclusive — lead levels in liver samples were lower than in breast samples, which is contrary to what would be expected,” Chief Environmental Scientist Mark Taylor said.

“EPA will conduct further sampling and analysis 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 state parliament whether lead levels above food safety guidelines had been found in ducks at the Heart Morass and Macleod Morass wetlands.

In a written response in August 2021, the Minister stated her department was not aware of any “publicly” available scientific studies to determine lead levels in ducks at the wetlands, despite the EPA having the results of tests completed in 2018.

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

“There is no excuse for duck hunters to still be using to use toxic lead shot and hunters caught doing so will be fined, have their equipment seized, may have their licenses canceled and face prosecution,” a government spokesperson said.

Lead poisoning can lead to ‘horrifically slow death’ for birds

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

“Concerningly, the birds of prey with by far the highest levels of lead exposure detected in Australia, have been wedge-tailed eagles from Victoria,” he said.

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

“Lead doesn’t go away, lead ammunition fired today will be in our environment for decades to come.”

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

“They suffer a horrifically slow death, both if they are wounded or feed on carcasses with lead in them,” she said.

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

Duck hunting group says it has ‘zero tolerance’ for rulebreakers

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

“We do not condone this 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 organisation, it 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 if exposed to lead fragments from ammunition.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Dr Hampton, who is also a vet, said more needed to be done to protect the environment, animals and humans, with lead ammunition still legal for quail hunting, commercial harvesting and aerial-based shooting.

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

“This did not harm the automobile industry when unleaded fuel was introduced.”

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