Fellow Story

Lessons Learned About Working with Policymakers in Passing Nation's First Lead Ammunition Ban

In October 2013, California's Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 711, making it illegal to use lead ammunition for hunting, a ban that will be phased in from 2015 to 2019.

For UC Santa Cruz environmental toxicologists Donald Smith and 1998 Switzer Fellow Myra Finkelstein, the bill represents the translation of years of scientific research into a new policy to protect people and wildlife from lead poisoning.

In November, I talked with Myra Finkelstein about lessons scientists can learn from her experience working with policymakers. 

Switzer: Why is this law important?

Finkelstein: AB 711 requires the use of non-lead ammunition for hunting in California. It is an important law for both wildlife and human health in California because use of lead ammunition is the largest unregulated discharge of lead into the environment. It is the cause of chronic poisoning of condors released into the wild, and can also harm any scavenging animal. Even humans could be exposed to lead if they inadvertently eat meat from animals hunted with lead ammunition.

Switzer: We’ve known for more than one hundred years that lead is toxic, so why is lead-based ammunition just being banned now?

Finkelstein: It really doesn’t have to do with the science, because the science showing lead is bad is unequivocal. I think it’s just hard to get people to change the way they do things. Maybe it’s more of a question for a sociologist, because from the perspective of science it doesn’t make sense to use something that’s so toxic and discharge it into the environment.

Switzer: What did it take to make this happen now?

Finkelstein: There was a partial ban on lead ammunition in condor habitat in California that took effect in 2008, but it didn’t significantly reduce the condor lead poisoning problem. It did set the stage for understanding that lead poisoning is a problem for condors and other raptors in California and across the country. What was missing was solid science that connected the observational data and answered questions like: how many condors are affected? is this preventing their recovery? what are the overall population effects of lead exposure?

You have to have really, really good science, and so we collaborated with some of the best scientists in the world that do this kind of thing, and the result was a very comprehensive study of how exposure to lead is preventing the recovery of California condors, and that lead-based ammunition is the principal source to condors, and published it in a very well respected journal. All this definitely takes a lot of work. 

Switzer: How did you bridge the gap between your scientific study and passage of a law? That’s a big leap.

Finkelstein: First of all, it all started with the science. The more comprehensive the work, the better. It had to stand up to substantial scrutiny from our scientific peers and of course opposition from hunter-advocacy groups and others that disagreed with our findings, so it was critical that the science was rock solid.

Second, it was important that we didn’t rely on our published science to speak for itself. We wrote the article in such a way that the results were more accessible to an informed audience. When the paper was published we conducted interviews with the media so the public and other interested stakeholders were aware of the work and understood what the science meant. 

Switzer: How do you find a balance between doing this kind of explaining versus what you need to do professionally and even personally?

Finkelstein: It takes a lot of time, but we thought that was important. Sometimes that meant putting what we had to do that day on the back burner to answer press questions, or talk to different stakeholders about the work, or spend the day driving to Sacramento to testify before the California State Senate. I think for this it was critical.

Reporters have deadlines, you can’t put them off. I was talking to reporters as I was running samples on an instrument. It would be nice to just publish your work and have it understandable to the public and policymakers, but that’s just not the case.

You end up spending more of your personal time to explain your results, but if you don’t take this time to explain your results then you’re missing an opportunity.

Switzer: Looking back now, was there a moment that you can see now was a turning point?

Finkelstein: We got a lot of traction with the paper, and we were excited about that. We want our science to make a difference. Don Smith and I realized the whole debate had become very condor centric, but we knew it was part of a bigger issue, including human health. So we contacted colleagues that work on other human health issues to put together Health Risks from Lead-Based Ammunition in the Environment: A Consensus Statement of Scientists. There were 30 of us that signed it, and it laid out in bullet point form everything we know about how bad lead is, and that lead ammunition is the largest unregulated source of lead in the environment. We also published an editorial on the subject in Environmental Health Perspectives, the leading environmental health journal in the United States.

The consensus statement doesn’t lay out anything new if you work in the field, but it puts everything in one place at the same time. So that made it very powerful. Putting together the consensus statement and elevating the issue beyond condors really made the difference.

I would say the consensus statement showed me that having a clearly summarized statement that laid out the scientific evidence for why restricting use of lead ammunition is good for human as well animal health was key to help inform the various stakeholders involved with this issue.

Switzer: So that is an example of something that worked. Were there hiccups along the way?

Finkelstein: I would say there are many things I’ve learned that I didn’t know when I started. We knew there was a large group that would be opposed to limiting the use of any kind of ammunition, but I didn’t really understand what that meant in terms of being a scientist. Before our main paper came out in July 2012, we’d had some publicity about condor lead poisoning events. We work closely with our partners that manage condors on a day to day basis, and in some cases we will provide preliminary findings to our partners so they can respond quickly to a lead poisoning event and hopefully avoid additional condor lead-related deaths. However, in a few cases these preliminary findings have been picked up by the media and triggered public record act requests by gun rights organizations. We even had to respond to a lawsuit against the University of California. Although the judge ruled in our favor, this process has been very time consuming and distracting.

Switzer: Did you find yourself, your lab or the university under fire?

Finkelstein: In addition to the lawsuit and numerous public record act requests the university has received related to our research, there have been lots of efforts online to try and discredit our science. A member of the NRA also testified before the California State Senate and called all of our work “junk science."  In response to this, one of the State Senators reprimanded him for his unprofessional testimony, which was surprising to me but also validating, especially when another Senator noted that our research was published in highly respected scientific journals while the NRA member had no peer-reviewed publications supporting his testimony.

Switzer: What advice to you have for Switzer Fellows working on topics that have potential to have a lot of public impact?

Finkelstein: My big advice would be to focus on doing the best possible, whether it is science or not. Also, believe in your work and seek out collaborations with other people making an impact. If you work in a controversial area, you will have distractions from people who want to impede your ability to make a difference. Just don’t give up or back down – ultimately I believe that everyone can make a difference – we just have to keep trying.

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