Slate's Explainer: Lead Poisoning from Bird Shot?

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Harry Whittington, the man accidentally shot by Vice President Dick Cheney during a recent hunting trip in Texas, continues to recover in a Texas hospital. He will still have bird shot lodged in his body when he's eventually discharged — Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explores whether the bird shot could lead to lead poisoning.


Harry Whittington, the man shot by Vice President Dick Cheney, is being discharged from the hospital today. According to his doctors, he is in excellent health and in good spirits. Whittington spoke earlier today outside the hospital.

Mr. HARRY WHITTINGTON (Shot by Vice President Dick Cheney): We all assume certain risks in whatever we do, whatever activities we pursue, and regardless of how experienced, careful and dedicated we are.

BRAND: Whittington still has birdshot pellets lodged in his body. The pellets were either made of lead or steel, we don't know which. Still, that got the Explainer Team at the online magazine Slate wondering, can lead pellets or bullets cause lead poisoning?

Here is Slate's Andy Bowers.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Senior Editor, Slate Magazine): Yes, but it doesn't happen very often. Birdshot is usually made of either steel or lead. But doctors routinely leave pellets or bullets in the body, because the risks of surgery are deemed greater than the possibility of poisoning. We don't what kind of birdshot Cheney was using. Experts quoted in the news seem to discount the dangers of lead for his victim. Still, numerous case reports and several studies have demonstrated that gunshot injury can cause lead toxicity.

A recent survey of about 500 shooting victims in South Central Los Angeles found a significant and consistent increase in blood lead levels over the months following an injury. The chance of getting lead poisoning increases with the number of bullet fragments, or pellets, you have lodged inside of you. A large number of very small lead pellets, perhaps like those lodged in Whittington's head, neck and chest, would be the most dangerous on account of their large surface area. Pellets that end up near large joints are especially problematic. The synovial fluid contained in these spaces seems to increase the rate at which lead dissolves.

The symptoms of lead poisoning might appear within a few days after someone gets shot. But they can also turn up decades later.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor. And that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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