I love to target practice, shoot my handguns, and help students with their shooting fundamentals. However, I want to understand the possible risks and truths about lead poisoning and hazards and learn preventive measures I can follow and offer others. While I remember the concerns and bans on the use of lead-based paint and the lowering of lead limits allowed in drinking water, I do not want to panic, jump to conclusions about lead, heavy metals, and shooting guns, and create a lead-poisoning hysteria. I still use paint and drink water, but am aware of the lead hazards and want to stay current with developments. In this article, I am not trying to scare you about the lead risks and am not advocating selling your guns and giving up shooting, but rather want to help educate and foster understanding of the genuine hazards and appropriate ways to deal with them. By the way, this matter should be separate from the political debate about gun control and gun rights. I want to objectively educate myself, my students, and others about specific lead hazards because of my frequency of range visits, shooting, and exposures as an instructor and for the sake of my students and others. Because lead can accumulate in body tissues over time, it is important to avoid repeated exposures to lead. This means that shooters who go to the range more frequently, or engage in shooting activities on a regular basis, should exercise a greater degree of care than for example, someone who visits a range only a few times a year. Probably, most shooters do not shoot enough or spend enough time at gun ranges for lead exposure to become a serious risk. I do not know this with certainty, am not even close to being an expert in this area, so what follows are just my opinions based on my limited research and I encourage you to investigate for yourself and become aware. Some questions do come to mind:
- What are the particular lead risks and hazards in shooting firearms and handling ammo?
- What are the minimal safe permissible levels for lead exposure, according to accepted authorities?
- How do you test and measure the level of lead exposure?
- What are the symptoms of lead poisoning?
- What specifically are the best practices or things you can do to prevent and/or reduce your lead exposure and lead poisoning? Is there more risk if you eat or drink soon after or while shooting? Is shooting lead-free ammo best? Will using hand sanitizers get rid of the lead and metal contaminants?
Of course, there are a lot of considerations and all shooters should be aware of any involved risks and preventive measures for their particular situations and frequency of shooting and exposures. The highest risk is to those who shoot a lot, especially at confined indoor ranges, and to firearms instructors and range employees who spend a lot of time working in those environments and are more exposed. I learned that many of my new students to shooting do not realize that they are exposed to lead every time they load, unload, fire, handle, or clean their firearms, use ammo, and collect brass. I want to help my students and myself be safe and understand the lead risks and know some preventive measures.
Recognize Risks and Hazards
Lead is an element, so it doesn’t degrade or become less toxic over time. Chronic lead poisoning is associated with long term exposure, is a function of absorption over time, and is affected by a person’s age, diet, health, and metabolic rate. A high percentage of lead (some say up to 90%) found in bone mass is insoluble and does not present a major hazard, according to some medical professionals.The majority of ammunition uses lead sulfuric primers and bullets made of lead. Even jacketed ammo typically have a little exposed lead at the base of the bullet. When the ammunition is fired the lead from the bullets, along with the lead and other chemicals in the primers, are vaporized and can be inhaled by the shooter. Lead escaping from unjacketed bullets shot down the barrel, lead vaporized from the bullet into fumes and fine particles, and lead from the burned primer travel within about a five-foot radius of the shooter and bystanders. This residue is in the air we breathe around us and it settles and is absorbed into our clothes, skin, hair, gun, glasses, ear protectors, holster, pouch, and everything around us. The inhaled and absorbed lead enters our bloodstream and is distributed throughout our body. If lead residue enters our mouth, it can be ingested and absorbed in our digestive system. In 2011, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) mentioned in one California range study that shooting in an open outdoor range with natural ventilation may allow more dissipation of lead, more air flow and lead dispersed, and help minimize exposure, inhalation, etc. Generally, the better the ventilation and air flow the less the risk of lead poisoning. Airborne lead dust can settle on the ceiling, walls, floor, ground and other surfaces. However, recognize that some indoor ranges use modern ventilation technology, High Energy Particulate (HEPA) cleaning systems, filtered air, and controls to lower lead dust and exposure. “The issue of lead problems for indoor ranges is extremely rare,” said Susan Recce, an NRA official.
Even when we clean our guns, we are exposed to the lead deposited on the gun’s barrel, chamber, parts, and surfaces. Lead residue is also on the rounds of ammo, brass, and spent casings we handle and collect. Non-jacketed ammo produces the most lead dust and fumes, fully jacketed ammo less, and lead-free ammo the least. So using lead-free primer ammo with fully jacketed bullets or lead-free bullets have a great benefit for shooters. Another potential source of lead exposure is the lead dust in the air from bullet impacts on metal targets or backstops. Lead and other contaminants can also be picked up on your shoes and clothes and carried into other places, so be aware of that when you return home from shooting. The accumulation of air lead likely depends on a variety of factors, including ventilation, length of time spent at the range, number of rounds shot, caliber and model of firearm, use of lead or copper-covered bullets, and eating and smoking at the range. All of these exposure factors are cumulative and excessive lead buildup can cause health problems. We are exposed to lead even though we cannot see most of it and do not usually think about it. Lead is removed slowly from our body (over many years), so it is best to minimize exposure up front. Recognizing the risks and hazards is the beginning of controlling, minimizing exposure, and preventing possible concerns for shooters.
Exposure Limits and Levels for Lead
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has established limits for airborne exposure to lead, per 29 CFR 1910.1025. Of course this applies to workers, but is an acceptable guide for shooters in general. The standard creates the action level and the permissible exposure limit (PEL). The action level for airborne lead exposure is 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) as an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA). The OSHA PEL for airborne exposure to lead is 50 μg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA, which is reduced for working shifts longer than 8 hours. The NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) for airborne lead is 50 ug/m3 as an 8-hour TWA. A worker’s blood lead level (BLL) should remain below 60 μg lead/100g of whole blood, per NIOSH. Lead exposure levels can be measured through a simple blood test by most healthcare providers and will identify recent exposure.
Symptoms of Lead Poisoning and 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. 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. So women shooters who are pregnant or might be should use extreme caution and decide for their personal situation if they should even shoot. I have strongly suggested to pregnant shooters in my classes to NOT complete the live-fire shooting portion of my classes until after childbirth and their doctor has given them permission. Generally, adults absorb about 20% of the lead we ingest, while children absorb about 70% of the lead they ingest. So, children are more vulnerable than adults to lead poisoning and exposure. 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. Below are just some of the many symptoms of lead poisoning offered by the Mayo Clinic and other health organizations. Not all of these may be present, vary by individual, and there are complex, individual considerations, so talk to your medical doctor about them for your personal situation. A lead level that produces only moderate problems in one individual may prove lethal to another.
Lead Poisoning Symptoms in Adults (Mayo Clinic)
- Loss of memory and difficulty in concentration (frequently the first symptom seen)
- Irritability & aggressiveness
- Loss of sexual interest; impotence
- High Blood Pressure
- Abdominal Pain
- Joint and Muscle Pains
- Pain, Tingling, Twitching, or Numbness in Extremities
- Mood Disorders
- Reduced Sperm Count or Abnormal Sperm
- Miscarriage or Premature Birth in Pregnant Women
Practices to Help Reduce the Risks and Hazards of Lead poisoning & Exposure
Lead-Free, Frangible, Total-Jacketed, & Other Ammo to Reduce Lead Exposure
Shooters can switch to non-toxic lead-free alternative ammo, but some question their effectiveness for contamination reduction. Lead-free and non-toxic ammo is typically more expensive than regular ammunition, is not available in all calibers, and usually has a shorter storage life than conventional ammunition. Frangible ammo may contain compressed, powdered metals which are likely to undergo the same corrosion and release process as lead and is more expensive. Steel ammo and iron corrode about 5 times faster than lead and usually contain substantial heavy metal impurities, like chromium and copper, that have the potential to be released by corrosion. Today’s ammo technology includes some variations, such as bullets that have been fully encased or ‘jacketed’ with copper. Copper-covered, totally-jacketed rounds with metal-free primers have been reported to significantly reduce the risk of lead poisoning. These are referred to as “Total Metal Jacket” (TMJ) (see above picture) and, like non-lead substitutes, are usually the safest to use when trying to reduce exposure to lead. Other common versions of jacketed ammo include Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) and Jacketed Hollow-Point (JHP) bullets. There are also semi-jacked bullets that only partially encase the lead, leaving an exposed tip. FMJ ammo and lead slugs both introduce substantial amounts of airborne lead vapors into the air. Most FMJ have exposed lead bases and the hot gases vaporize lead at the base of the bullet. I understand that, generally, only TMJ or plated bullets eliminate lead vapors.
In addition to shooting our guns and handling ammo, cleaning our guns presents another opportunity to become exposed to lead and to spread it throughout our home/area, but we can easily control that if we just take the time. These ideas below are time consuming and inconvenient, but the benefits outweigh costs. Try at least some of them. Here are some things I try to do each time I clean my guns.
- Wear Nitrile gloves (latex gloves usually dissolve with solvents) (dispose of them each time)
- Wear eye protection while cleaning (eyes, mouth, & nose areas really absorb contaminants)
- Use a non-porous cleaning surface that can be cleaned (Gun Mats)or clean on something that can be thrown away
- Clean the cleaning area surface and eye protectors after each session
- Place all disposable swabs, patches, gloves, cleaning material in a sealed trash bag & dispose of them
- Avoid pressurized air to blow surfaces clean and to blow excess solvent/oil off (more easily disperses contaminants)
- Thoroughly wash my hands, arms, and face after gun cleaning (as well as shower after each range session)
- Use cold water (hot water opens skin pores & promotes lead absorption) & soap to wash and a skin cleaner designed for removing metal (I just bought D-Wipes to try along with D-Lead Soap and Skin Cleaner- expensive & hope they help)
- Change into clean clothing as soon as possible after range trips, shooting, and gun cleaning (keep dedicated range-only shoes in a container in a separate area or garage)
- Never eat, drink, or smoke while handling ammo, shooting at the range, cleaning a gun, or re-loading ammo (promotes easy entry of contaminants into blood and body) (Lead dust on hands & face can be ingested through contact with food or by touching the face)
NOTE: Hand Sanitizers, like Purell, Dial, GOJO, and Cleanwell, do NOT remove heavy metals and lead from hands but some do act to kill germs. Lead and other particulates are somewhat removed with cold running water and some soap. NIOSH has developed an easy-hand-wipe technology for workers and it is commercially available under license from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. A decontamination towel is commercially available, called Hygenall Heavy Metal Decontamination Towels (about $8 a canister), that claims to remove 99% of unseen lead particles and other metals from the skin, is non-toxic, and helps prevent transfer of lead and toxic chemicals to other surfaces and people. Also, products called D-Lead Wipes are available from ESCA Tech (about $15 a canister), as well as hand soap and skin cleaner.
Other Considerations When Shooting & Handling Guns & Ammo
- Use mostly copper-coated, fully-jacketed ammo
- Shoot outdoors as much as possible and avoid poorly ventilated ranges to reduce lead exposure
- Have your lead level in your blood regularly checked by your physician (especially as a frequent, high-volume shooter or if you have lead poisoning symptoms)
- Consider limiting the time you shoot on a busy range to minimize exposure to second-hand lead
- Consider sending as few shooters as possible (spread the risk) to score or put up new targets at the range since the air lead is highest at the target
I hope I have made you more aware of some of the possible lead risks, hazards, and practices when shooting, handling guns and ammo, and when cleaning them. Ideally, there are many things you can do to reduce lead contamination, avoid lead poisoning, and be healthy, but you must define your personal goal and priorities, decide what is reasonable and optimal for yourself, and then make a dedicated effort to do them.
Lead Photo with Permission from HKuulapaa. Other photos from author.
NIOSH Telephone: 1–800–CDC–INFO (1–800–232–4636)
NIOSH Website: www.cdc.gov/niosh
Huntsville, AL 35806
Milwaukee, WI 53212
This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney in your state or jurisdiction for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, stand your ground law, and concealed carry. This is not legal advice and not legal opinions. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2014 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.