Obviously, there is always the risk of lead exposure when you hit the range. And generally, as long as everyone observes the basic rules of firearm safety, it really shouldn’t be an issue. Or is it? Are you still being exposed to the adverse effects of lead, even without being shot? The chances are that it is possible.
What You Should Know About Lead Exposure at the Range
Before you panic, it is probable that you are not being exposed to dangerous levels of lead at the range. The typical recreational shooter doesn’t spend enough time at firing ranges to be exposed to lead at any dangerous level. At least not enough to experience any serious overall health effects.
However, competitive shooters, law enforcement, military personnel, firearms instructors, gun range workers, reloaders, and anyone who shoots a lot might have more contact with lead than they realize. Also worth noting is that young children are more susceptible to lead exposure than adults, even in small amounts. So, it is important to limit the blood lead level in children by keeping their firearm training to a minimum.
According to the CDC, “Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”
“Lead exposure occurs when a child comes in contact with lead by touching, swallowing, or breathing in lead or lead dust,” it concludes.
For this reason, it might be in your child’s best interest if you load their firearm for them. Obviously, this is a missed training opportunity. But you can train them in loading procedures using dummy rounds that contain no lead or by using lead-free ammo.
Signs of Lead Exposure to Watch For
Although children are most susceptible to the effects of lead exposure, adults are not immune. And lead can have negative health effects on the body that should be treated quickly.
The Mayo Clinic writes, “Initially, lead poisoning can be hard to detect — even people who seem healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and symptoms usually don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated.”
In children, symptoms of lead poisoning include:
- Developmental delay
- Learning difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Sluggishness and fatigue
- Abdominal pain
- Hearing loss
- Eating things, such as paint chips, that aren’t food (pica)
In adults, the symptoms include:
- High blood pressure
- Joint and muscle pain
- Difficulties with memory or concentration
- Abdominal pain
- Mood disorders
- Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
- Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women
Reducing Lead Exposure
Reducing your and your family’s exposure to lead isn’t quite as daunting as it may seem. There are certain steps you can take to limit the continued exposure at, or after you leave, the range. Following these simple steps will help mitigate the lasting effects.
- Do not smoke at the range or while handling lead based ammunition
- Do not eat while at the range or handling lead based ammunition
- Make sure to keep your water container closed tight and limit drinking to away from the line
- Always wash your hands and face prior to eating and after all range sessions and use cold water to keep your pores closed
- Use lead removal skin wipes at the range
- Take a shower immediately when you get home and use lead removal soap
- Change your clothes and try to keep your range clothes separate from your fresh street clothes until they are washed
- Keep personal items away from the firing line and only take the firearm and ammo you will be shooting
- If you are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, consider looking into respiratory protection—especially for range workers
- Look into the availability of lead-free ammunition
- Select ammunition with lead free primers
- Use copper-jacketed ammo which encapsulates the bullet, reducing lead dust and other particulates in the air
- If shooting at an indoor range, make sure it is ventilated properly
- When possible, shoot at an outdoor range instead of an indoor range
- Wear good gloves and eye protection when cleaning your firearm(s) or frequently handling ammunition
- Have your blood checked regularly to ensure you are not reaching dangerous levels of lead
Treating Lead Poisoning
Although there are technically no “safe” levels of lead in the system, there are levels where treatment might be necessary. According to the CDC, in 2015-2016 the typical BLL (blood lead level) among adults in the United States was 0.92 µg/dL. If the BLL reaches levels between 5 to 9 µg/dL it is recommended getting it checked every three months.
The threat level increases as the blood becomes more contaminated with lead, increasing the frequency of BLL checks. By 25 µg/dL OSHA considers this serious and must be handled by inspection. By 50-60 µg/dL an employer (if based on workplace exposure) must remove the employee from the workplace until his/her BLL is below 40 µg/dL.
But there are steps you can take.
According to HealthLine, the following foods help prevent/reduce lead storage:
- Calcium-rich foods: milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, and green, leafy vegetables
- Iron-rich foods: lean meat, beans, fortified cereals, and peanut butter
- Foods high in vitamin C: oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes, and green peppers
Also, reducing your exposure to lead can help to reduce the amount of lead in the blood over time. However, sometimes medical intervention is neccessary.
In those cases, the Mayo Clinic suggests that your doctor might recommend:
- Chelation therapy. In this treatment, a medication given by mouth binds with the lead so that it’s excreted in urine. Chelation therapy might be recommended for children with a blood level of 45 mcg/dL or greater and adults with high blood levels of lead or symptoms of lead poisoning.
- EDTA chelation therapy. Health care providers treat adults with lead levels greater than 45 mcg/dL of blood and children who can’t tolerate the drug used in conventional chelation therapy most commonly with a chemical called calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). EDTA is given by injection.
Make Your Health a Priority
Although exposure to lead can be dangerous, it isn’t the end of the world. It really only becomes a problem at high levels, resulting in lead poisoning. And as we learned, it can be treated. If you experience frequent exposure to lead it is important to check your BLL regularly.
As I mentioned, this isn’t really an issue for casual shooters. But it is still a good idea to follow the guidelines above for reducing exposure. However, those that work on gun ranges, reloaders, law enforcement, military, competitive shooters, and anyone who spends a lot of time on a range or around ammunition should make regular checks a priority.
Stay safe and stay healthy.