Lead Dust From Firearms Can Pose A Silent Health Risk (2023)

Firearms using lead ammunition spray lead dust out of the muzzle and ejection port when fired. Herra Kuulapaa Precires/Science Photo Library/Getty Images hide caption

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(Video) Health Hazards of Low-level Lead Exposure to Adults

Herra Kuulapaa Precires/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Firearms using lead ammunition spray lead dust out of the muzzle and ejection port when fired.

Herra Kuulapaa Precires/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Firearms safety is key for people who use weapons at work or for recreational shooting. But one risk has been little acknowledged: Lead dust exposure.

(Video) Lead Exposure Risks & Shooting Ranges

In a standard bullet, a solid lead core wrapped in a copper jacket sits atop a stack of gunpowder and lead primer. When the gun fires, the primer ignites, the gunpowder lights, and some of the lead on the bullet boils. When the casing snaps out of the ejection port, lead particles trail behind it. As the bullet hurtles down the barrel of the gun, a shower of lead particles follows.

If a gun range isn't ventilated well, lead dust collects on shooters' clothing and hands and lingers in the air, where it can be inhaled. The more people shoot, the greater the risk of being exposed to dangerous amounts of lead. It becomes an occupational hazard for weapons instructors, police and defense personnel.

It can also put family members at risk. A 1-year-old boy in Connecticut was found to have high blood lead levels at a routine doctor's visit. There were no lead paint or pipes in the child's home. The exposure was traced to his father's job as a maintenance worker at an indoor shooting range; the father cared for his son after work in lead-contaminated clothing, according to a 2015 report from the state public health department.

In order to reduce risk, the Department of Defense has lowered its blood lead standard to 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, three times more restrictive than its previous standard, which relied on Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. These OSHA guidelines apply to workers inside the United States, including employees of private firing ranges, but not to customers of those ranges.

The DoD's new blood lead policy, in effect as of April, comes after a National Academy of Sciences report published in 2012 showing that defense personnel face significant health risks from lead from firing ranges, defense department spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel James Brindle told NPR. "DoD's subject matter experts in toxicology and occupational medicine used the Committee's report to propose the lower allowable blood lead level." The study also showed that people should expect negative health consequences at the blood lead standard set by OSHA.

The OSHA standards for blood lead and exposure to lead have long been criticized as inadequate and dangerously outdated. "The current [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standard hasn't been updated since the 1970s," says Dr. Elena Page, an occupational and environmental hazards physician at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "It's widely acknowledged that the OSHA standard is not protective. They're clearly aware of that, and there's been a lot of pressure to change it." OSHA did not provide comments or interviews requested for this story.

About 1 million law enforcement officers train on indoor ranges, according to the CDC, and there are 16,000 to 18,000 private indoor ranges in the U.S.

Currently, the OSHA standards for lead exposure decree that employees must stop working if they have a blood lead level of 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, and workers can return to the job if their blood lead level drops below 40 for two consecutive tests. But adverse effects on cardiovascular health, brain function and kidney function have been connected to blood lead levels as low as 5. "There's no amount of lead in your blood that's safe," Page says.

(Video) How To Prevent Lead Poisoning

The issue of lead exposure and firearms is divisive, even the question of whether higher lead levels are unsafe. "Well, that's their opinion," says Larry Keane, the vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "We believe there are efforts by others that want to diminish people's participation in shooting sports or exercise their second amendment rights. They put out or advocate positions that are unsupported by the evidence."

The need for a stricter lead standard is obvious, says Adam Finkel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former OSHA official. "OSHA is really letting people down," he says. "We're learning more about the neurologic effects of lead, and for whatever reason this substance has the capability of causing a whole spectrum of health effects at the OSHA standard that people don't appreciate."

Many effects from lead can be subtle or nonspecific, says Mark Laidlaw, an environmental health scientist at RMIT University in Australia. "Memory and concentration problems, headache, abdominal pain, mood disorders – they can be attributed to a number of things unrelated to lead," he says. "You can have one of these health effects, but the shooters might not realize these are associated with their shooting. They just don't know they're being lead poisoned."

At levels slightly higher than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, people may begin suffering spontaneous abortions or kidney dysfunction, according to the CDC. As the volume of lead in the body increases, the effects become more severe.

"At levels of 10 or less, there's definitely evidence of increased incidence of tremor. Some are more cognitive effects," says Catherine Beaucham, an industrial hygienist at NIOSH and author of a 2014 report that found that most people with elevated blood levels were exposed from working at recreational firing ranges. "With acute lead poisoning, you can get wrist drop, nerve problems, abdominal pain. If it gets high enough, you can get a coma and death."

Firing ranges can be particularly hazardous environments. Defense department ranges, private recreational firing ranges and law enforcement facilities have been found to be contaminated with high levels of lead, according to investigations by The Oregonian and Seattle Times in 2016 and 2014. Often, neglected or failing ventilation equipment was to blame.

A review of lead exposure at shooting ranges that Laidlaw published last month found that nearly all participants in the 36 studies had blood lead levels above the 5 microgram ceiling recommended by the CDC; some had levels higher than 40. "You got to understand, the more bullets you shoot, the higher your blood lead level. The more visits you take to the range, then the higher your blood lead level."

And when OSHA has inspected firing ranges in the last few decades, the agency has commonly found lead contamination violations. "It's about 30 years of sampling. They haven't done very many, but just a quick look shows about 350 air samples," Finkel says.

(Video) Lead Exposure Risks in the Work Environment

About half of samples exceed the 50 microgram per cubic meter air level standard for workplaces, Finkel says, and some gun ranges had contamination levels]up to 24,100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. "So, it's terribly, terribly common, and [OSHA] finds overexposures even to their 40-year-old inadequate standard."

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The defense department's new blood lead limit of 20 does not go far enough, Laidlaw says. He thinks a better standard would be a maximum of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. "It is a step in the right direction, however the best way to deal with the problem is to eliminate lead from bullets and primers," he says. "I worry about the health of the young men and women in the military who are exposed to lead regularly while using firearms."

The Defense department has a long-term goal of reducing employees' blood lead levels to below 10, Brindle says. "The DoD policy requires mandatory removal of the worker from workplace exposures when their blood lead level exceeds 20, and effectively will achieve the long-term average blood lead level to stay below 10," he writes to NPR in an email.

But some within the industry say it's not necessary to abandon lead ammunition. "[Lead] is only a problem if [gun ranges] are not designed maintained properly," says Bill Provencher, the co-founder of Carey's Small Arms Range Ventilation in Tinley Park, Ill. "Even if OSHA standards are somewhat risky, a properly ventilated range has hardly detectible lead levels at 0.6 [micrograms per cubic meter of air.]"

The most important thing aside from range ventilation, Provencher says, is to make sure that people are using safe practices like carefully washing their hands and clothes after shooting. "I would say [awareness] is going from not very good to good," he says. "The people I've met with really high lead levels, most of them did seriously silly things like working in the environment while drinking coffee. Ranges can be an unsafe place, but they can be perfectly safe places. There are people out there who are just hard headed and do silly things."

(Video) Reducing Lead Exposure—Nemours: Keeping a Healthy Home

FAQs

Can you get lead poisoning from touching lead? ›

Touching lead is not the problem. It becomes dangerous when you breathe in or swallow lead. Breathing It - You can breathe in lead if dust in the air contains lead, especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces.

How long does it take to get lead out of your system? ›

The half-life of lead in adult human blood has been estimated as 28 days. The body accumulates lead over a lifetime and normally releases it very slowly. Both past and current elevated exposures to lead increase patient risks for adverse health effects from lead.

What happens if you inhale lead paint? ›

Severe damage to the brain and kidneys. Reproductive system damage. Increased blood pressure. Anemia.

What guidelines should you follow to reduce the possibility of being exposed to lead dust or fumes? ›

cleaning the house regularly and ensuring there is no build-up of dust or paint chips from peeling paint. Use wet cleaning methods for dusty floors, ledges, window sills and other flat surfaces to minimise the risk of lead-containing dust getting into the air.

Can lead be absorbed through the skin? ›

Some studies have found lead can be absorbed through skin. If you handle lead and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, you could be exposed. Lead dust can also get on your clothes and your hair. If this happens, it's possible that you may track home some of the lead dust, which may also expose your family.

Can you recover from lead exposure? ›

Is lead poisoning curable? The effects of lead poisoning aren't reversible. But you can reduce blood lead levels and prevent further exposure by finding and removing the sources of lead from your child's home or environment.

How do you cleanse your body of lead? ›

If lead levels in the blood are excessive, a procedure known as chelation therapy can help remove lead from the body. It involves either an oral or intravenous agent that binds to lead so that it can be cleared from the body in stool or urine.

How do I know if I have lead in my body? ›

Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive health issues in adults. Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach cramps, constipation, muscle/joint pain, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and loss of sex drive. Most adults with lead poisoning don't look or feel sick.

Does vitamin C help with lead poisoning? ›

Vitamin C has been consistently linked to lower blood lead levels and reduced organ damage. It may inhibit lead uptake at a cellular level, thereby reducing lead's toxicity to some organs.

How long does lead dust stay in the air? ›

These dust particles can stay in the air for up to 10 hours. A person can easily breathe in this fine dust. Once this dust makes contact with the soil, the wind can carry it off- site contaminating surrounding environment and water bodies. How might I be exposed to lead?

How long does it take to get lead poisoning? ›

How long it takes a child to absorb toxic levels of lead depends on the concentration of lead in the dust. Rosen says that in a typical lead-contaminated housing unit, it takes one to six months for a small child's blood-lead levels to rise to a level of concern.

What are the chances of getting lead poisoning? ›

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL).

What can you do if you've been exposed to lead? ›

If you think you or your child has been exposed to lead, see your health care provider or contact your local public health department. A blood test can help determine blood lead levels. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

Is lead poisoning permanent? ›

Some of the effects are permanent. In severe cases, anemia, seizures, coma, or death may occur.

How can you protect yourself from lead dust? ›

Practice Safe Personal Habits:

Don't rub your sleeves against your face or hands. Wash your hands and face well and often with soap and water. Shower at work, if possible, before going home. Always use a clean towel to dry your hands and body.

What are the 3 ways lead can enter the body? ›

Possible routes of lead exposure include: ingestion of lead-contaminated water, soil, paint chips, or dust; inhalation of lead-containing particles of soil or dust in air; and. ingestion of foods that contain lead from soil or water.

Can you get lead poisoning from handling bullets? ›

Hunters who use lead bullets or shot, and their families, are at risk of lead poisoning in several ways: ingesting lead shot pellets or lead bullet fragments or residues in game meat, ingesting lead residue from handling lead bullets, or inhaling airborne lead during ammunition reloading or at shooting ranges (Carey ...

What is the most toxic form of lead? ›

Organic lead: This form of lead is extremely dangerous — it can be absorbed through the skin and is much more toxic to the brain and central nervous system than inorganic lead.

Can lead poisoning show up years later? ›

Even after exposure stops, the lead can come back into the bloodstream and continue to damage the brain and other organs for years to come.

Is milk good for lead poisoning? ›

The calcium in milk and other dairy foods also helps prevent lead from being absorbed into the body. Children need 2 to 3 servings of milk or other dairy foods a day. More servings are not necessary. Children who drink too much milk are often not interested in eating other healthy foods.

What are 4 effects of lead poisoning? ›

Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child.

Can you test for lead poisoning? ›

How is the testing done for lead poisoning? A health care provider will test your child's blood for lead. . The test is simple. To find out how much lead is in a child's blood, a small amount of blood is taken from the child's arm or finger.

What part of the brain does lead poisoning affect? ›

Within the brain, lead-induced damage in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum can lead to a variety of neurological disorders, such as brain damage, mental retardation, behavioral problems, nerve damage, and possibly Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and schizophrenia.

Which foods are high in lead? ›

Fruit juices: 89% of grape juice samples contained detectable levels of lead, mixed fruit (67%), apple (55%), and pear (45%) Root vegetables: Sweet potatoes (86%) and carrots (43%) Cookies: Arrowroot cookies (64%) and teething biscuits (47%)

How do you reverse lead poisoning? ›

Is There a Treatment for Lead Poisoning? There is no way of reversing damage done by lead poisoning, which is why pediatricians emphasize prevention. But a diet high in calcium, iron and vitamin C can help the body absorb less lead.

Does regular soap remove lead? ›

Washing skin with standard soap and water is not enough to remove lead residues. NIOSH researchers have developed wipes that can remove 98% of lead residues from skin.

Where does lead build up in the body? ›

Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.

What food removes lead from body? ›

Eat a Healthy Diet to Help Decrease Lead Absorption
  • Milk and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese.
  • Calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy milk, tofu and some breakfast cereals.
  • Green leafy vegetables, including kale and turnip, mustard and collard greens.
  • Canned salmon and sardines.
22 Mar 2018

What foods help reduce lead levels? ›

These foods may help keep lead out of the body. Calcium is in milk, yogurt, cheese, and green leafy vegetables like spinach. Iron is in lean red meats, beans, peanut butter, and cereals. Vitamin C is in oranges, green and red peppers, and juice.

Do air purifiers take lead out of air? ›

Using a HEPA air purifier is also a good idea, both during renovation and after, as it will capture lead particles and reduce your family's risk of lead poisoning by inhalation.

How much lead dust is toxic? ›

What Lead Levels Are Considered Elevated in Adults? occur (extremely dangerous). Between 40 and 80 µg/dL, serious health damage may be occuring, even if there are no symptoms (seriously elevated).

Does rain wash away lead dust? ›

Lead is removed from the air by rain and by particles falling to land or into surface water. Sources of lead in dust and soil include lead that falls to the ground from the air and from weathering and chipping of paint that contains lead (lead-based paint) from buildings, bridges, and other structures.

Should adults get tested for lead poisoning? ›

You may need this test if your past or current history shows a possible exposure to lead and if your healthcare provider suspects that you have lead poisoning symptoms. These symptoms include: Fatigue. Belly pain.

What are the symptoms of being slowly poisoned? ›

General symptoms of poisoning can include:
  • feeling and being sick.
  • diarrhoea.
  • stomach pain.
  • drowsiness, dizziness or weakness.
  • high temperature.
  • chills (shivering)
  • loss of appetite.
  • headache.

Should adults be tested for lead? ›

We recommend that adults who have occupational lead exposure or who have non-occupational intermittent lead exposures have a protoporphyrin test in addition to the whole blood lead test. This additional test can be made on the same sample of blood as the blood lead test.

Are small amounts of lead safe? ›

Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

Is lead toxic to touch? ›

Touching lead is not the problem. It becomes dangerous when you breathe in or swallow lead. Breathing It - You can breathe in lead if dust in the air contains lead, especially during renovations that disturb painted surfaces.

Does lead cause brain damage in adults? ›

When the BBB is exposed to high levels of lead concentration, fluid can accumulate and cause cerebral edema. This leads to extreme intracranial pressure, which can result in encephalopathy and irreversible brain damage.

What are the long term side effects of lead poisoning? ›

Exposure to lead can seriously harm a child's health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as:
  • Damage to the brain and nervous system.
  • Slowed growth and development.
  • Learning and behavior problems.
  • Hearing and speech problems.

What is the most common route of lead absorption into the body? ›

Inhalation of airborne lead is generally the most important source of occupational lead absorption. You can also absorb lead through your digestive system if lead gets into your mouth and is swallowed.

What detergent removes lead? ›

A: D-Lead Dry or Wet Skin Cleaner enables efficient and quick removal of heavy metals, paint …

What neutralizes lead? ›

Some pros use trisodium phosphate (TSP), which neutralizes lead by turning it into lead phosphate. But TSP is poisonous—some states prohibit its use—and lead phosphate is a suspected carcinogen. Instead, try a phosphate-free, biodegradable detergent, like Ledizolv, which attracts and stabilizes lead dust.

What are the chances of getting lead poisoning? ›

Lead poisoning is very common. 1 in 40 children ages 1-5 years old have blood lead levels that are considered unsafe (over 5 µg/dL).

How does lead poisoning happen? ›

Lead poisoning happens when too much lead gets into the body. Lead can enter through the skin, or when a person breathes it in or eats or drinks something contaminated by lead. Lead in the body can hurt the brain, kidneys, and other organs.

Is pencil lead poisonous to humans? ›

Pencil “lead” is actually graphite which is safe and non-toxic.

What is the most common route of lead absorption into the body? ›

Inhalation of airborne lead is generally the most important source of occupational lead absorption. You can also absorb lead through your digestive system if lead gets into your mouth and is swallowed.

How long does lead dust stay in the air? ›

These dust particles can stay in the air for up to 10 hours. A person can easily breathe in this fine dust. Once this dust makes contact with the soil, the wind can carry it off- site contaminating surrounding environment and water bodies. How might I be exposed to lead?

How long does it take to get lead poisoning? ›

How long it takes a child to absorb toxic levels of lead depends on the concentration of lead in the dust. Rosen says that in a typical lead-contaminated housing unit, it takes one to six months for a small child's blood-lead levels to rise to a level of concern.

Are small amounts of lead safe? ›

Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

What are signs of lead poisoning in adults? ›

Lead exposure can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive health issues in adults. Symptoms of lead poisoning include headaches, stomach cramps, constipation, muscle/joint pain, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and loss of sex drive. Most adults with lead poisoning don't look or feel sick.

How can I test myself for lead poisoning? ›

A simple blood test can detect lead poisoning. A small blood sample is taken from a finger prick or from a vein. Lead levels in the blood are measured in micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).

Does lead stay in body forever? ›

Within our bodies, lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues. It does not stay there permanently, rather it is stored there as a source of continual internal exposure.

How do you get lead out of your body? ›

Diet and dietary supplements may aid in reducing lead absorption. If lead levels in the blood are excessive, a procedure known as chelation therapy can help remove lead from the body. It involves either an oral or intravenous agent that binds to lead so that it can be cleared from the body in stool or urine.

What happens if graphite gets in your bloodstream? ›

Graphite is relatively nonpoisonous. There may be no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include stomachache and vomiting, which could be from a bowel obstruction (blockage).

What does graphite do to your body? ›

Effects of overexposure Repeated inhalation of natural graphite over a number of years may cause scarring of the lungs with such symptoms as chest tightness, shortness of breath, cough, black sputum, and pain. Natural graphite dust causes graphite pneumoconiosis.

How often should you be monitored if you are exposed to lead? ›

Biological monitoring under the standard must be provided at least every 2 months for the first 6 months and every 6 months thereafter until your blood lead level is below 40 μg/dl.

What are the 3 ways lead can enter the body? ›

Possible routes of lead exposure include: ingestion of lead-contaminated water, soil, paint chips, or dust; inhalation of lead-containing particles of soil or dust in air; and. ingestion of foods that contain lead from soil or water.

Does lead affect nervous system? ›

Low levels of lead can affect a child's brain and central nervous system. At high levels, lead can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system. This damage can lead to seizures, loss of muscle control, and coma. Lead exposure can interrupt a child's progress as they grow.

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