Beretta Blog

Lead Dangers – Health Effects & Methods of Contamination

Posted by Sara Ahrens

on Oct 10, 2013 12:01:00 PM

When I became the Range Master for my agency, I didn’t know what I needed to know about lead. Two years into my position I got a real education  that was nothing short of terrifying. The recession forced my agency to mandate my unit and I (five of us) to handle all range functions from training and qualifications, to maintenance of firearms. Unable to pay overtime, I could no longer rotate these responsibilities amongst a large cadre of part-time range officers and armorers.

It did not take long for these cutbacks to affect everyone in my unit. We have our lead levels checked annually. The test we took after having assumed all range responsibilities indicated that we all had increased lead levels. This is unheard of in our agency. Unable to rotate range officers put the five of us at risk. I did some serious research on lead and the more I learned about lead, the more terrified I became. I was concerned about my own health, but the sickness in the pit of my stomach arose over the potential risk I exposed to my children. Lead accumulates in the body over time, so there are many precautions and practices that can help minimize exposure for both shooters and their families. These precautions and practices only work if the risks are taken seriously.

Picking up sent brass is just one method of lead exposure
 Lead contamination on the range occurs in some obvious activities - Photo: Sara Ahrens
For chronic lead exposure, about 6 percent of the lead that enters the body is deposited in soft tissues like the brain, kidneys, and other organs, and in the blood stream. The remaining 94 percent ends up in the bones. Lead is deposited in our bones because the body mistakes lead for calcium, tricking the body into storing it. Over time, our bodies excrete lead through our urine. The half-life of lead in adults is about 30-40 days; meaning one-half of the deposited lead will be excreted in that time. The remaining lead is stored in the body for about twenty years. Every exposure adds to this cumulative effect. Chronic exposure to lead negatively impacts the health of the shooter, and their loved ones.

Health Effects of Lead Exposure on Adults and Children

Research over the past couple decades has revealed that increased lead levels in young and unborn children can cause metabolic and developmental damage. The health risks are different for adults and children. Since children are smaller and develop rapidly, they are more vulnerable to the hazards.  Lead poisoning in children can result in permanent damage such as lowered intelligence, learning disabilities, hearing loss, reduced attention span, and behavioral abnormalities.              
Lead in adults can cause damage to the peripheral nervous system. Damage to this system can affect memory, vision, coordination, and dexterity in the fingers, wrist or ankles. High levels of lead in the system can cause damage to the kidneys. The end result of kidney damage can include anemia, miscarriage, and decreased fertility in men and women. 

Methods of Contamination

Some of the ways lead exposure occurs on the range are more obvious than others. Here a few of the ways:
  • Ingestion – Lead enters the body through the digestive system. Lead can be ingested when shooters eat, drink or smoke on the range. Airborne lead will deposit on all surfaces within the immediate environment. They can then be ingested if the surface comes into contact with the mouth. When lead is ingested it deposits in the digestive system.Screen Shot 2013 09 19 at 11.31.18 AM
Dry sweeping a range floor creates plumes of lead particles. Using a tool that picks up brass, but leaves debris is safer.
  • Inhalation – Lead enters the body through inhalation. There are numerous ways in which lead becomes airborne on a range, such as:
    • Since primers contain lead, whenever the striker, firing pin, or hammer ignites it, the lead particles contained within the primer are released.
    • Bullets contain lead and even if a bullet is jacketed, that jacket begins to break apart during its travels down the barrel. By the time the bullet exits the muzzle, lead remnants from both the bullet and the primer exit in the muzzle blast.
    • When the bullet containing lead impacts it's target, the fragments that result not only pose a ricochet threat, but an airborne lead exposure threat as well.
    • Any range that supplies a broom for the purposes of cleaning up the floors after a shoot is argueably creating the worst risk of exposure to airborne lead particles. Sweeping.
  • Absorption – Lead is absorbed into the body through the pores. The hotter the temperature, the larger the pores become thus allowing for greater absorption. Lead can be absorbed into the body when:
    • Shooters collect spent brass in their hats and then wear the hats allowing the lead to enter the pores on the scalp.
    • Shooters who collect spent brass can see the lead residue, without decontamination it will be absorbed into the skin or through mucus membranes, or it can be ingested should contaminated hands make contact with the mouth.
    • Cleaning firearms also creates an exposure risk. The use of solvents and lubricants actually opens the pores allowing for increased absorption.
Being aware of how lead enters the body and the danger it presents is an important part of the plot, but its not the whole story. See the upcoming article to learn more about symptoms of high lead levels, and appropriate methods for decontamination.

Topics: Firearms Safety, Other