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Lead Sinkers: Ecological Health Effects
Table of Contents
Background and Overview
Ecological Health Effects
Regulations & Policies
Alternative Products
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Fish and Wildlife Issues Related to the Use of Lead Fishing Gear
Provides a broad overview on the subject of lead and its impact on wildlife and the environment, esp...

Loon Health and Mortality
Identifies mortality factors in loons, specifically the effects of lead poisoning from fishing gear....

Lead sinkers and jigs can cause fatal lead poisoning in loons and many other water birds, including some that have been placed on an endangered or threatened species lists. Loons ingest small stones and grit from the bottom of lakes to help them digest their food. Because lead sinkers are about the same size as these stones and sit on the floor of water bodies, the loons can incidentally ingest them as well - some research even suggests that loons purposefully select the lead sinkers, although the reasons why are unknown. In addition, loons and other water birds such as herons, swans, and even bald eagles, feed on fish that may have ingested lead. These birds may also ingest lead fishing line that is attached to a hook and live bait fish.

Fortunately, lead does not bio-accumulate in the food-chain - meaning that it does not increase in concentration in an organism or in the food chain over time. In fact, lead actually tends to decrease in concentration with increasing trophic levels. There is evidence however, that lead may bio-concentrate from water, meaning that lead can be absorbed by an animal or plant to levels higher than the surrounding aquatic environment.3

Lead sinkers recovered from streams have demonstrated weight loss and corrosion. Although studies have not found any measurable effects on water quality from the dissolution of lead sinkers, the dissolved lead can end up in water sediments and soil. This dissolved lead may also eventually be taken up by aquatic invertebrates and plants.4 The availability of lead is dependent upon several factors, including the water's pH, hardness, temperature, and level of organic matter. Lead in general (i.e., industry pollution, lead shot, and lead fishing gear) has negative impacts on aquatic plants, and excessive amounts can inhibit growth and reduce photosynthesis, mitosis, and water absorption.5 Also, because lead is non-bio-degradable, it accumulates wherever it is deposited and can persist in the environment (e.g., soil), as well as in organisms' teeth and bones for decades.6

However, the small amounts of lead resulting from lead sinkers and fishing gear being lost or disposed of in the environment do not generally cause such over-arching effects. Instead the negative impacts of lead fishing gear occur mainly in waterfowl that directly ingest them. The waterfowl suffer from lead poisoning or "lead toxicosis" and eventually die.

The Wildlife Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts conducted a 20-year study to determine mortality factors for loons in the area. During this study, over 600 dead and dying loons were examined; almost half (44 percent) of them suffered from lead poisoning, contributing to or resulting in death. Virtually all of the lead poisoning can be traced back to the loons eating lead fishing gear. In fact, every loon that ingested a piece of lead fishing gear exhibited signs of lead toxicity in their blood, while the loons that did not ingest lead fishing gear did not.7

The effects of lead poisoning in wildlife are similar to what one might see in humans and have negative impacts on the animals' nervous systems and reproductive systems, which ultimately can lead to death. Poisoned water birds may experience difficulty with their normal behavioral activities, such as flying or diving for food. They often can no longer digest food and have trouble breathing, making them lethargic and weak and more vulnerable to predation. Through experimenting with captive waterfowl, research has shown that a single dose of 0.3 grams (0.01 ounces) of lead results in death from lead poisoning. Therefore, if a loon ingests just one lead sinker or jig weighing between 0.5 and 15 grams each (0.02 and 0.53 ounces), it can be fatal.8

Last Updated: 01/03/08

3EPA Toxicology Profile
4Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
5Eisler, R. 1988. Lead hazards to fish, wildlife, and invertebrates: a synoptic review. U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv. Biol. Rep. 85(1.14).
6Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
7Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
8University of Vermont Legislative Research


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Hub Last Updated: 12/4/2012