New research calls for the phase out of lead bullets at shooting ranges as long-term exposure may lead to serious medical conditions. According to the researchers, lead fragments and fumes are released every time shooters fire their weapons. As a result, shooters inhale the fumes, while lead residues stick to their hands and might be inadvertently ingested through smoking or eating.
The study also stressed that women of child-bearing age are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning as the toxic chemical is stored in their bones and stands as a substitute for calcium. Once a woman becomes pregnant, the fetus will then take up the lead deposits along with calcium. This can lead to serious neurodevelopmental damage, the researchers said. Data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showed that even low levels of lead exposure may significantly impact behavior and intelligence in children. Female shooters may also transmit lead exposure through breast milk, the experts added.
“While there is no safe level of lead exposure, US health bodies regard 5 micrograms per decilitre of blood as the level that’s cause for concern. What this research found is that people using shooting ranges can record blood-lead levels as high as 40 micrograms, with women and children at particular risk. The kind of blood-lead levels found among shooters can lead to essential tremor, hypertension, cardiovascular-related mortality, electrocardiography abnormalities, decreased kidney function, psychiatric effects, decreased hearing, decreased cognitive function, decreased fertility, incidence of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, adverse sperm parameters, increased spontaneous abortion, and reduced fetal growth in children,” said researcher Dr. Mark Laidlaw, ScienceDaily.com reports.
Dr. Laidlaw also pointed out that lead-free bullets and primers are already available. The researchers suggested short-term solutions such as creating better ventilation systems for indoor shooting ranges and developing airflow systems in outdoor ranges. The study also calls for the use of protective clothing in fire ranges and banning smoking and eating in such establishments. However, the experts stressed that the real solution to prevent lead poisoning is using copper bullets and lead-free primers.
Health risks associated with lead exposure
The recent study showed that one million law enforcement officers in the U.S. train at indoor firing ranges, while 20 million citizens practice target shooting. Data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) also revealed that about 60,100 metric tonnes of lead were used in ammunition and bullets in the U.S. in 2012 alone.
The Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified lead as a potential carcinogen. According to NIOSH, lead exposure — whether by inhaling, swallowing, or absorbing — results in adverse medical conditions regardless of the exposure type. However, the agency noted that the body absorbs higher lead levels when the chemical is inhaled.
Symptoms of both short-term and long-term lead exposure include memory loss, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead may cause weakness, anemia, and kidney and brain damage. Short-term exposure to very high levels may cause death. On the other hand, long-term exposure may cause high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and reduced fertility.
Ways to cut back on lead exposure during shooting
- Choose an outdoor range if possible, as open air is probably the best ventilation option. Consider coming back some other time if the air doesn’t smell clean, or if gun smoke does not easily dissipate.
- Do not eat, drink or keep food near when shooting indoors. While indoor ranges have strict policies on food and drinks, doing so will still help minimize hand-to-mouth interaction.
- Immediately wash hands with soap and cold water after shooting.
- Change clothes and shoes as soon as you get home to minimize exposure and possible transmission.
We all have the right to protect ourselves. While this may mean more target practice, it also implies taking better care of your health.