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Healthy Hunting Tips: How to avoid PFAS, heavy metals and infectious disease this season.

Photo courtesy of Joe Meyers

It’s officially firearm hunting season in Michigan, and I hope some of you may have already filled your freezer for the winter!  While I don’t personally hunt, my family does, and living in Alaska for the bulk of my 20s, I quickly learned that living off the land is not only a hobby, but a lifeline for some folks.  As a Naturopathic Doctor who focuses on Environmentally Acquired Illnesses, I want to highlight some of the exposure risks associated with hunting and eating wild game.

HEALTHY HUNTING TIP#1: Avoid Heavy Metal Exposures

There are many health concerns related to heavy metal exposures, which vary based on extent, frequency and severity of exposure.  The NIH lists “gastrointestinal and kidney dysfunction, nervous system disorders, skin lesions, vascular damage, immune dysfunction, birth defects and cancer,” as potential health impacts of heavy metal exposures.  In my practice, I have seen many of these to varying degrees, based on a person’s exposure, as well as their ability to clear these metals successfully from their body. 

With regards to hunting, the main concern here relates to the type of ammunition used when hunting.  As with anything, there are “worst, better and best,” options to consider. Michigan has a great, printable pamphlet available regarding ammunition utilization in deer hunting. 

The gold star standard is to use copper and lead free bullets, however they are more expensive which may be cost prohibitive for some hunters. The take home is to emphasize controlled expansion bullets, to avoid over-fragmentation in the animal, and if you can, select a non-lead based ammunition.

Additional resources: 

HEALTHY HUNTING TIP #2: Watch out for PFAS exposures

We’ve been discussing PFAS a lot in Michigan, and across the country.  These are the “forever chemicals” that are produced in various manufacturing processes, found in water repellant treatments for outdoor gear and clothes, and adulterate our watersheds and soil.  Why do we care?  Well, these chemicals have been linked to numerous health concerns, including immune dysfunction, liver damage, cancer, hormone disruption and ultimately developmental and reproductive issues. In the fall of 2022, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and New Hampshire all announced that PFAS had been found in local waterways, as well as the game population.  These states are at the forefront of testing these chemicals in our wild game populations, and they offer public updates/ “Do not eat” advisories, including: 

Other states also have information on PFAS contamination, although some are more focused on fish consumption.  That said, we can assume that if fish are exposed, then game may be as well, so plan accordingly!

HEALTHY HUNTING TIP #3: Don’t eat “the whole hog,” so to speak. 

As much as it pains me to say that every part of the animal shouldn’t be consumed, there are a couple of organs that you want to avoid when you are meal planning.  The liver and kidneys, as in humans, are the primary organs of detoxification, which means they are responsible for processing all the gross stuff in the environment. You wouldn’t want to eat off the air filter of your car or the drain in your shower, which is kind of like eating these particular organ meats of your game. Information on consuming organ meats

HEALTHY HUNTING TIP #4: Avoid exposure to infectious agents. 

We often refer to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) when we are discussing deer hunting, however, in 2020, it was estimated that 43% of globally emerging human infectious diseases originate in wildlife (PMID: 33255599). CWD, however, isn’t the only infectious agent that can be found in deer, so take care when butchering, preserving and preparing your meat. Keep in mind, some symptoms of infectious disease can be more discreet and have a delayed onset. If you are experiencing any symptoms consult with your doctor to determine if additional medical work up is indicated.

Image courtesy of Montsera Production

CWD Information:

General Tips on consumption of wild game:

HEALTHY HUNTING TIP #5: Use basic tick protection behaviors. 

I know we have been told that ticks aren’t present when it gets cold, but my three dogs (and their Vet) would tell you differently!  Tick borne diseases are a real thing, in the acute and chronic forms, and prevention is really the best medicine on this one.  Most of you are likely wearing long sleeves, high boots, and hats, but please, check yourself for ticks when you get home, and utilize all of the resources available to you to prevent exposures. For a more natural option for tick repellant, lemon eucalyptus oil has been suggested by various state and federal health departments, however, a 2022 study reviewed the effectiveness of commercially available combination repellants (lemongrass and eucalyptus), and found that at least a 4% concentration was needed to achieve results. Also, once you are back hunting birds (if you so desire), check your furry friends. And please, if you have dogs, check them for ticks after every outdoor excursion.  The deer are moving and bedding down, so that means that the deer ticks are too!

Photo courtesy of Erik Karits

Michigan info on ticks and Lyme disease 

Michigan report on all tick-borne diseases (2016-2020)

Download PDF • 4.61MB

BONUS TIP: Wear your blaze orange!

I personally start wearing my bright clothes starting in October, because hunting season goes well beyond opening day of firearm season (i.e. bow season, bird season, etc). As a trail runner, mountain biker and hiker, I’m always thinking about how I can stand out in the woods, which means orange hats, jackets and running/hiking pants.  It’s not only a safety precaution, but just courteous of our hunting community to make sure you are as visible as possible. And don’t forget your furry friends; make sure they are leashed and wearing bright colors as well!

Benzie County Local Business Blaze Orange options

Lastly, I just want to give a shout out to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for putting out some really great resources for our outdoors-people, including the Eat Safe Fish and Eat Safe Game guides.  These are regional specific guides to help consumers determine which toxins are of concern in various regions and waterways AND they help determine a decent serving size to minimize current and ongoing exposures to said toxins. I use them as tools with many of my clients, as part of a comprehensive approach to living a balanced life with our environment. The truth is that we live in this world, and will have many environmental exposures over our lifetimes, but that doesn't mean that everything is going to make us sick. There are many ways by which our bodies naturally protect themselves, and many more that are available to us if they need assistance.

In Chinese medicine, we often say that if we are in balance, we can handle anything thrown at us (I'm obviously paraphrasing). It may take a little time to find that balance, but once we are there, it's time to get out there and enjoy ourselves!

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