The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

Lead ammunition: where’s the science?

The Lead Ammunition Group was set up five years ago, yet the future of lead shot remains unclear, writes BASC chief executive Richard Ali

No sound evidence, no change” is the firmly held position of every British shooting organisation on lead ammunition. This means that any regulations must first and foremost be supported by absolutely solid scientific evidence. “No change” is all about regulation. Does the evidence point to an incontrovertible need for more regulation? No one in their right mind would support more regulation for regulation’s sake.

Regulation is about managing risk. Life itself is a risky business, but risk cannot be entirely regulated away. There is a balance of sharing risk between the Government and individuals. Government can regulate so that motorcyclists must wear a helmet and obey speed limits, for example, but they cannot remove the risk of someone who decides to open the throttle on a country lane. That risk belongs to the individual, as does the responsibility. Deciding to regulate is a big decision and is bound by strict procedures codified in the principles of Better Regulation. They state that regulation must have transparency, proportionality, targeting, consistency and accountability.

But let’s turn back to the science. If you read the newspapers you will know that journalists quote scientific studies every day. You’re probably as confused as I am about whether a glass of wine is good for you, which fats you should eat and whether an aspirin a day is a good thing. The point is that a lot of scientists do a lot of studies. One study is not definitive evidence. The scientific method is based on the fact that findings should be able to be reviewed and replicated by other scientists. As we can see, they don’t always agree.

Short Wood Shoot, South Yorkshire, january, 2013

Scientific bias
Last December, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, wrote to The Times, saying: “Scientists have a responsibility to work with and correct those who misuse and misrepresent science to support their particular politics or ideologies. We must remain vigilant to ensure that evidence comes before opinion.”

We all have opinions and beliefs. Scientists are not immune to being influenced by them, hence the warning from Sir Paul. This problem is known as “white-hat bias” — where a scientist deliberately or unintentionally selects evidence that supports their opinion. Opinion comes first and the evidence is flawed. Regulation must address real problems and not support prejudice and opinion. So what does this mean for the Lead Ammunition Group (LAG)? It was set up in 2010, when politicians invited relevant stakeholders to produce advice on the potential effects of lead ammunition on wildlife and human health.

The fact that the LAG was even established shows that the evidence for new regulation was not proven. Political theory calls this the “agenda-setting” phase. In the absence of concrete evidence in support of change, stakeholders promote their agendas. It can be the very definition of a grey area. The LAG is reviewing studies and publications and trying to agree what those studies might mean and if definitive advice can be produced.

I have no doubt that those politicians involved in LAG’s establishment believed it would follow a clearly defined, unbiased process, adhering to government guidelines and principles of modern risk assessment and review. The LAG drew criticism early on. At only its second meeting, it agreed to allow “grey evidence” into the process. If you mix the grey areas of opinion-driven agenda-setting with white-hat bias, we will end up with more than 50 shades of grey.

Risks must be defined using sound evidence. Thereafter proposals to address those risks must meet the principles of Better Regulation. Governments of all political colours now accept that over-regulation is a bad thing. To that end, processes have been put in place to protect against the overzealous, the holier-than-thou and the demonising.

HR_Highland Hunting Sept 2014 Tweed Media

Policy making
It is not the job of the LAG, nor of any individual on it, to make policy. That is the role of Her Majesty’s Government. The job of the LAG is to review the paperwork, consider where additional risks may lie, quantify those risks and, if necessary, propose relevant mitigation to DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The LAG’s own terms of reference state that neither DEFRA nor the FSA will be bound by that advice.

All organisations that recognise the value of shooting have always wanted to see the stringent application of a clear, consistent, evidence-based approach. It is an open secret that many on the LAG are concerned that processes have been flawed and bias introduced. As a consequence, our faith in a measured report on risk and mitigation has been shaken. We all know that lead itself can be toxic, but that risk is far from uniform. Regulators have already acted where lead can cause problems — for example, when it is present in exhaust fumes, which can be inhaled.

And, in 2012, even while the LAG was slowly deliberating, the FSA conducted its own assessment of lead-shot game meat, and produced advice and guidance along the lines of those for oily fish and tuna. Perhaps the FSA got tired of waiting for the LAG? More likely, it followed the science — as Norway did earlier this year. Potential risks to wildlife had also been assessed and regulated years ago. All shooters should know when and where lead can be used. Those regulations are the result of international governmental agreement. Despite intense lobbying in the years since, no one has produced the evidence to support further restriction.

In any event, we should remember that LAG influence stops with any recommendations it might make. The Government must then assess its work through proper process and democratic scrutiny. It’s what we as citizens have the right to expect from our regulators.