The Forgotton Peril
by Stuart L. Wayne
Shooters are safety-minded people. We follow the rules of safe gun handling, we wear eye and ear protection -- all of these have been hammered into us since we first picked up a firearm. Yet there is one aspect of firearm safety that we seldom think about as shooters -- that is lead poisoning.
Is lead poisoning a serious concern? Sure -- any mechanism with the capability of killing you or inflicting great bodily harm is serious, and lead qualifies as such. That's why it is illegal in paint and part of why it can't be used in gasoline anymore. Different sources argue about how much is too much, but they all agree that it is a danger. It should be noted here that children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. Levels much lower than an adult can tolerate will interfere with their physical and mental development. It might be a good idea to keep the little ones away from the range and your reloading area until they are sufficiently mature physically to tolerate the exposure and sufficiently disciplined to keep clean and keep from putting their hands and objects they pick up into their mouths. In an adult, blood lead concentrations of 40 micro-g/dl (micrograms per deciliter) are the threshold for concern, but a child is at serious risk for developmental problems at 25 micro-g/dl.
We seem to believe that a shooting range is "safe" or it isn't "safe". Our own contribution toward proper lead hygiene isn't often considered. The simple fact is that every range has lead present! How much or little is greatly a function of what we are willing to pay to maintain it and how intrusive the lead elimination process is to our shooting. Are you willing to shoot only expensive (and erratic) lead-free ammunition with lead-free primers? Are you willing to put up with a gale-force wind blowing icily down your back as you shoot? Will you pay for state-of-the-art air treatment equipment at your club's range? These can help improve range hygiene, but they aren't all practical and they won't do the entire job. Even the best-maintained range hygiene is meaningless if the shooters themselves don't understand how lead poisoning occurs and what they can do to prevent it.
Basically, lead can enter your body in three ways: ingestion, inhalation and absorption. The first, ingestion, is simply lead transferred by mouth. Maybe you left the range and grabbed a snack without washing up first. Lead got on your hands from shooting, from handling ammunition and from touching dusty range paraphernalia. From there it got on your food and got a free ride down your gullet. It was then acted upon by the powerful acids in your stomach, and absorbed into your blood stream along with the food you were eating! The biggest individual contribution to your own safety is simply this: always wash hands and face thoroughly with soap and cold water immediately upon leaving the range. Why cold water? Because it constricts the pores of your skin and helps seal it from absorbing lead. Most importantly, never bring food or drinks into the range and never eat there.
The second mechanism, inhalation, can happen in a number of ways, but all of them bring lead compounds into your lungs which can absorb into the blood stream along with the oxygen you breath. How do we minimize this? For starters, never smoke in the range. Not only will you inhale lead vapor and lead dust through a cigarette, but the hot end will vaporize some of that dust and allow the lead to form more easily absorbed lead compounds. Make sure that the fans are all running in the indoor range when you shoot, and do your share to sweep up after yourself and to check the furnace filter, changing it if dirty.
Here's another inhalation caution that I never fully realized until reading up on this subject: Do you reload? Do you tumble your dirty brass in dry media such as corn cob or walnut? When you pour the cleaned brass out of the tumbler and shake or spin it to separate the media, clouds of lead-laden dust come up to engulf your mouth and nostrils. If at all possible, wear a respirator and do this step outside. Consider using a shot-glass or so of water in the media to keep down the dust when you pour it out of the tumbler. I have tried this -- it helps but is no cure-all.
The third mechanism for taking in lead is absorption through the skin. This isn't generally as important a factor as are ingestion and inhalation, but it can contribute to your lead levels. Just ducking out of the range to use the bathroom? Wash up first (and of course, after). Genital and anal skin are more susceptible to lead absorption than is most of the body and call for special attention to cleanliness.
Okay, assuming that you have followed all the lead hygiene rules above, how do you know whether or not you are still accumulating lead in your body? Ask your doctor for a PbB (blood lead) test. This is a simple blood test that can be done when they draw blood for all the other routine tests the lab runs. If your level runs below 20 micro-g/dl and you're an adult, you probably have no reason for concern (However the CDC says 10 micro-g/dl is too much). Between 20 and 40 micro-g/dl, you would be wise to review your lead-handling practices and clean up your act where necessary. At 40 micro-g/dl, be sure your doctor gets involved if he wasn't already. Consider cutting back on indoor shooting and reducing your exposure to lead markedly! 80 micro-g/dl is considered life-threatening for adults. Serious intervention, such as chelation therapy may be called for as well as complete removal of all lead contact opportunities! Your doctor may want you to take a ZPP (zinc protoporphyrin) test to evaluate the lead level in your bones. The bones act as a lead reservoir for the blood and if your blood lead levels are already elevated, some chemicals can leach lead from the bones raising the blood lead to dangerous levels.
What are the effects of excessive blood lead? In adults, it can take many forms. Pregnancy difficulties, low sperm count, reproductive problems, high blood pressure, digestive system problems, neurological difficulties, memory problems and kidney problems may occur. If you have any of these, it is a good idea to ask for a PbB test as part of the diagnostic process. Your doctor may not think of this if he doesn't know you to be a shooter.
The effects on children come at a lower blood lead level and they include brain and nervous system disorders, behavior and learning problems, growth, hearing and vision difficulties. It's a good idea to keep small kids away from ranges and reloading areas. Don't put the baby on your lap after you come home from the range until you change clothes and wash up!
Realize that lead poisoning is a serious concern to every shooter. It is more than a range problem, it is a hygiene problem that all shooters as well as range managers need to understand. Keeping the range clean, the filters changed and running the fans whenever shooting will help, but ultimately the burden is on the shooter. Practice good personal lead hygiene by eliminating ingestion, inhalation and absorption of lead and check yourself regularly for blood lead levels. It could save your life!
copyright 2003 by the author, all rights reserved.