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A Manageable Hazard

The author of this article works in the health and safety field, and is an avid shooter. I asked him to write this piece to inform all of us, new and experienced shooters alike, about the risk of lead overexposure and how to manage that risk. I’m grateful he took the time and effort to do it.

~ Kathy

Lead exposure in the shooting sports is a real hazard that all shooters should be aware of. We all understand the need to protect our hearing and eyes, but not everyone is aware of the hazard of lead exposure. Understanding a hazard exists allows us the opportunity to address it and continue to enjoy shooting safely. Lead is no different and its hazards can be controlled.

Shooting and Exposure to Lead

We’re all familiar with the fact that lead is used in making bullets, but not every shooter remembers that lead compounds are used in most primers these days. Lead from the unjacketed bullet shooting down the barrel, lead vaporized from the base of the bullet and lead from the burned primer sprays out in a cloud when the bullet is fired. The fumes and fine particles of lead don’t travel much more than 3-5 feet but that is far enough to be in the air we breathe and to settle on the gun, clothing and skin (think gunshot residue).

After a range session we have another opportunity to become exposed to lead when we clean our firearms. Lead obviously will be deposited on the inside of the barrel and chamber, but the lead deposited on skin and clothing during shooting is also deposited on the surface of the firearms. When we clean them we use solvents that may actually cause this lead to be absorbed into the skin more readily.

A third opportunity comes if we collect our brass. There is lead residue on the brass. Handling it provides another opportunity for exposure.

An Unfamiliar Firearms Safety Hazard

Unlike the familiar hazards of negligent discharges and noise most shooters only have a vague idea about the hazards associated with lead.

The vaporized lead obviously can be inhaled, but the particles of lead sheared off as an unjacketed bullet travels down the barrel are small enough to be easily inhaled as well. Once inhaled the lead readily crosses to the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body. It is absorbed like calcium and interferes with iron absorption and can be deposited in bone and fat and other soft tissue.

Lead can also settle on the skin and hair where it can be absorbed through the skin. If lead particles reach the mouth they can be ingested and absorbed through the digestive system.

Lead has been in use for thousands of years and its hazards have been well chronicled. These were well known before OSHA and EPA regulations directed at limiting lead exposure were ever developed. Shooters should take precautions to control all unnecessary exposure to lead. Knowing the hazards is first step in controlling the hazards. Taking the necessary precautions to minimize exposure is an essential part of shooting safety like use of hearing and eye protection.

Effects of Lead on the Body

There is no useful purpose in the human body for the lead we absorb. The body absorbs some ingested lead, but we absorb almost all of the lead that is inhaled (children absorb much more from ingestion). The body chemically ‘sees’ lead as calcium and absorbs it readily. While lead is deposited in the blood or soft body tissues, such as the kidneys and brain, the vast majority of it is deposited in bone. Because the body treats lead like calcium, the lead is stored for long periods of time and can actually increase in concentration as exposure continues.

The body does break down lead slowly over years so that it can be removed. The problem is this takes place very slowly. Only half the lead in your body today will be gone after 20 years.

Symptoms of Lead Exposure

Lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and reproductive system regardless of how it enters the body. Lead absorbed into the body initially affects the nervous system. This can lead to irritability, aggressive behavior, depression, loss of sensation in fingers and face, weakness in the fingers, wrists and ankles (wrist drop), headaches, loss of sexual function and impotence. Other symptoms include low appetite, loss of energy, abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, muscle pain, muscle weakness, high blood pressure and weight loss.

Men suffer loss of sex drive, reduced sexual function and impotence if lead levels reach high enough concentrations. Lead can also alter the structure of sperm cells potentially causing birth defects.

Pregnant women are vulnerable to rapid absorption of lead, along with calcium, from the blood into the bone. This occurs due to metabolic changes caused by pregnancy. In pregnant women, lead passes through the placenta to the fetus, potentially causing miscarriages and birth defects.

Remember that adults absorb about 20% of the lead we ingest. Children absorb about 70% of the lead they ingest. Since children are constantly putting things in their mouths or failing to wash their hands before they put their fingers in their mouths ingestion is their primary route of exposure. Think of all the times you’ve had to tell your kids to ‘put that down and wash your hands’. Exposure to lead may result in slow learning, slow growth, hearing loss and behavioral problems.

With all the various symptoms over-exposure to lead can be mistaken for many other problems. This makes it particularly difficult to diagnose unless the physician is aware of our potential exposure. With this knowledge a simple set of blood tests can tell us if we have become over-exposed to lead.

Testing for Lead

Your doctor can take a blood sample and test for lead using BLL and ZPP tests. These tests give results in micrograms per deciliter of blood. A Blood Lead Level (BLL) less than 20 for an adult and a Zinc Protoporphyrin (ZPP) below 100 may not be hazardous in the short term, but if the BLL is above 10 it indicates possible lead exposure that should be reduced. Any BLL near or above 10 for children should be cause for immediate concern.

These tests are a simple and inexpensive way for shooters to know if the things they’re doing to keep their lead exposure down are working.

Precautions on the Range

Simple precautions can be taken both on and off the range to reduce lead exposure to shooters and their families. Good hygiene and limiting exposure times go a long way towards preventing problems.

Indoor Ranges

Most indoor ranges have a greater potential for lead exposure problems than outdoor ranges. However, the range can institute several controls to lower the amount of lead dust in these facilities.

The choice of ammunition is one such control. Non-jacketed ammunition produces the most lead dust and fumes, fully jacketed ammunition less and lead-free ammunition, obviously, the least. Shotgun shells produce more airborne lead dust than any handgun round. Currently, many ammunition manufacturers make available lead-free ammunition that does away with lead compounds in both the primer and the bullet. From a personal standpoint using lead-free primer ammunition with fully jacketed bullets or lead-free bullets will have the greatest benefit for individual shooters.

Indoor ranges should not be carpeted, since lead dust settles and contaminates the rugs. A commercial High Efficiency Particulate (HEPA) vacuum should be used to vacuum these carpets.

Air should move from behind the shooters downrange taking as much of the lead from the firing of the firearms away from the shooter. The air in the range should not be reused or, if reused, it should be filtered so the air that blows across the shooter is cleaned of lead. Remember, if there’s a constant cloud of ‘gunsmoke’ and you can taste the sweetish metallic taste of lead in the air it’s probably not clean enough for a long shooting session.

Cleaning Firearms

For some of us, cleaning our firearms can be almost as relaxing as our range session. It also represents another opportunity to become exposed to lead that we can easily control.

Some tips for reducing lead exposure when cleaning guns:

Remember, the goal is to keep the lead from getting spread throughout the home and these methods will help prevent that.

What Does It All Mean?

Just as we all learned the importance of using eye and ear protection, we have learned that lead exposure can threaten the health of shooters and our enjoyment of the sport. However, through good range practices and proper hygiene shooters can control their exposure to lead and keep it down to safe levels.