Lead Exposure Risks in Firing Ranges
An Overview for Range Owners and Range Managers
Following a series of many articles published in scholarly journals and a steadily growing number of accounts in the press, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and affiliated state agencies have been increasing their efforts aimed at identifying occupations where risks of lead exposure exist and toward reducing the exposures once identified. Lead exposure in firing ranges is one of the areas of risk that is receiving increased attention from those agencies.
In addition to the concerns every range owner or master has about the levels of lead exposure of range employees and shooters, range owners and masters must also now deal with occupational safety and health agencies that are increasingly resorting to immediately citing ranges that have lead levels in excess of regulatory standards. The occupational safety and health agencies are taking the view that range owners and managers should now be aware of the risks inherent in their operations. Given the growing concerns about the effects of lead exposure on adults and the regulatory agencies increasingly tough stance, it is more important than ever for ranges to ensure that they are in full compliance.
Effects of Overexposure to Lead
Lead, when ingested or inhaled in unsafe amounts, can cause numerous health problems. The most commonly sited of these are the neurological effects on children. However, the effects of overexposure to lead on adults are also quite serious and well documented. Some of the most important of these health effects are described below.
- Hypertension: high blood lead levels may cause elevated blood pressure levels.
- Renal system: high lead levels can have damage human kidneys.
- Reproductive effects: research has shown that high blood lead levels can adversely affect human reproductive functions.
- Red blood cell effects: elevated blood lead levels can reduce red blood cells' effectiveness in carrying oxygen.
- Storage of lead in bones: the skeleton is generally viewed as a storehouse for lead, with roughly 90 to 95 percent of ingested lead ultimately deposited there. Once lead has been absorbed into an individual's bones, it is estimated that it will take twenty years for half of it to work its way back out.
Lead Exposure Findings at Firing Ranges
The lead vapor created in firing a handgun has several principal sources: the action of hot propellant gases (reaching 2,000) against the lead base of the bullet, the friction of the bullet against the barrel and the combustion of lead in priming compounds. Numerous studies have shown that shooters, range workers and others in the shooting area at ranges frequently have elevated blood lead levels caused both by inhaling lead vapor and by inadequate personal hygiene prior to smoking and/or eating.
- One study carried out by the United States government in the 1970's found that at nine indoor firing ranges examined, the average airborne lead concentration was almost 54 times the current OSHA limit.
- Subsequent studies have reported such findings as an average ten-fold increase in blood lead levels among a class of 17 law enforcement cadets during three months of training at an indoor range.
- Other studies of indoor ranges have found numerous cases throughout the United States of elevated blood lead levels and symptoms of lead poisoning.
Several recent studies, focused on exposure in outdoor firing ranges, also have found -- to the surprise of some -- high lead exposure levels.
- One study in 1989 found that blood lead levels among a class of police cadets in Richmond, Virginia tripled during their five-day training period using conventional lead bullets at an outdoor range.
- Another recent study found that a group of seven Los Angeles Police Department shooting instructors at an uncovered outdoor range all had elevated blood lead levels and nearly 30% of the group had lead levels above OSHA's maximum permissible level.
Although studies have demonstrated that improved ventilation systems and careful personal hygiene before smoking or eating can help reduce the risks of overexposure to lead, most research has suggested that the best means of solving the lead exposure problem is at its source through modified ammunition.
- One study, published in 1990 and titled Red'wing Exposure to Airborne Lead in a Covered, Outdoor Firing Range by Using Totally Copper-Jacketed Bullets found that using such ammunition reduced airborne lead levels by more than 95% in the area of the range where the shooters were located when compared to lead levels present when lead ammunition was used.
- Other studies have shown similar results from eliminating lead bullets.
Every range, whether indoor or outdoor, should carefully evaluate the potential for unsafe lead exposure levels and should take steps to solve any potential sources of problems.
- If any doubts exist concerning lead exposure levels, lead levels should be tested.
- A variety of organizations are capable of conducting tests including universities' departments of industrial hygiene as well as OSRA, which is required by law to conduct risk evaluations when requested.
Prepared by Rainier Ballistics Corporation, Tacoma, Washington.
Additional copies of this summary as well as of the NRA's brochure titled Effects of exposure to Airborne Lead on Users of Indoor Firing Ranges Second Edition) are available from Rainier Ballistics by calling 800-638-8722.