There’s nothing better than the smell of lead at a shooting range on a sunny Saturday morning. But according to a new study published in the April issue of Environmental Health, that smell might be more dangerous than you think.
The study reviews thirty-six articles that investigate the potential health risks of lead exposure to both professional and recreational shooters at shooting ranges. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that blood lead levels (BLLs) should never exceed five micrograms per deciliter, the articles reviewed found that BLLs in some shooters can rise to anywhere from 10 µg/dL to over 40 µg/dL.
According to the study, there is “sufficient evidence” that BLLs exceeding 10 µg/dL can result in essential tremor, hypertension, cardiovascular-related mortality and electrocardiography abnormalities, and decreased kidney glomerular filtration rates.
The risk is especially high for women and children. The body stores lead in the bones, and when a woman becomes pregnant, that lead can find its way to the fetus and cause developmental problems. For children, lead can inhibit the proper growth of organs and cause long-term detrimental health effects.
Exposure comes primarily through lead primers and bullets. When the primer is ignited and the bullet travels down the barrel, microscopic lead particles are released into the air. These particles can be inhaled or inadvertently consumed when they land on hands and clothing.
Blood lead levels rise the more time a shooter spends at a range. Occasional shooters who visit a range less than 12 times per year need not be too worried, according to the study. But regular shooters—both recreational, professional, and law enforcement—tend to exhibit much higher levels of lead exposure. Shooting instructors, range workers, and law enforcement trainees, for example, exhibited BLLs between 20 µg/dL and 40 µg/dL. Some studies found even higher levels among people whose occupation includes many hours of range time.
Since lead bullets and primers constitute the two primary causes of lead exposure at shooting ranges, the study recommends the development of lead-free primers and the use of lead-free bullets. The Department of Defense and NATO are already investigating the performance of lead-free primers to protect military personnel and lead-free ammunition is already on the market.
Beyond minimizing the amount of lead at shooting ranges, the study recommends changing clothing after shooting, avoiding smoking and eating at firing ranges, and ensuring proper ventilation at indoor and outdoor ranges.
If this kind of study makes you nervous, I don’t blame you. Anti-gun politicians love to cry wolf about the supposed dangers of shooting sports and then use those “dangers” to increase regulation. Lead is poisonous, but it isn’t clear how much lead must be consumed before harmful effects manifest themselves. Mandating lead-free primers or lead-free bullets would be a clear case of government overreach, and this study shouldn’t be used as an excuse to impinge upon Second Amendment rights.
Still, it’s helpful for shooters—especially occupational shooters, women, and children—to know the potential risks of spending too much time in poorly ventilated ranges. While studies like this shouldn’t be taken as gospel truth, they should factor into the decisions shooters make as they pursue their sport, their work, or their hobby.