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California poised to become first state to impose full ban on lead bullets

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FILE: a Remington Core-Lokt lead-core rifle bullet that has been discharged and retrieved. (National Park Service)

California is on the verge of becoming the first state to impose a full ban on hunting with lead bullets -- with environmentalists and gun-rights advocates squaring off as Gov. Jerry Brown decides whether to sign the legislation.

The state already has a ban on lead-bullet hunting in eight counties with an endangered condor population. But the new proposal, overwhelmingly approved this month by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, would impose a statewide ban on all hunting.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has until Oct. 12 to decide whether to sign the legislation, which would not be fully implemented for at least several years.

Environmentalists and other supporters have broadened their argument beyond protecting the prehistoric condor bird, saying the lead bullets, and the left-behind lead fragments on which animals feed, are making their way into the country’s edible meat supply.

And they point to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Public Health that concluded lead is so prevalent in meat harvested through hunting that pregnant women and children should never eat it.  

"There is no safe level of lead for human consumption," said bill sponsor and state Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles-area Democrat.

The National Rifle Association and other critics have posed a list of reasons for stopping the ban including that the 2008 studies never conclusively linked consumption with illness in humans; copper bullets are more expensive; the state would lose millions of dollars in hunting license fees that pay for conservation efforts; and no credible evidence exists to prove lead bullet fragments are poisoning condors and other scavenging birds.

"These condors are flocking around … dump sites,” NRA lawyer Chuck Michel told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They are vultures. They also congregate around lookout towers, and there are pictures of them eating the chipped lead paint. The point is, there are alternate sources of lead in the environment which are probably the source of the lead."

Roughly two dozen states already have partial bans, mostly in sensitive wildlife refuges.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that nationwide there are 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre in wild game territory that can be eaten or washed into waterways, and that the 60,000 metric tons of lead fired off in 2012 is second largest use of lead behind storage batteries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.