Lead released when people fire weapons at shooting ranges creates such a health risk that lead bullets should be phased out, according to Australian and US research.
Every time someone fires their weapon, lead fragments and fumes are discharged at high pressure. Shooters then breathe in the metal, while other particles stick to their hands and are swallowed through smoking and eating.
Women of child-bearing age are at particular risk, as the lead is stored in their bones where it substitutes for calcium. When a woman becomes pregnant, the foetus takes in lead along with the calcium it needs from its mother’s bones, which can cause serious neurodevelopmental damage. Female shooters can also pass on lead exposure through breast milk.
Dr Mark Laidlaw, a researcher in the Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said the dangers of long-term exposure to lead were well known, but the risks for people using shooting ranges had not previously been fully explored.
“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.”
In the US, about 1m law enforcement officers train at indoor firing ranges, 20m citizens practice target shooting, and 16,000-18,000 indoor firing ranges exist. The United States Geological Survey calculated that in 2012 about 60,100 metric tonnes of lead were used in ammunition and bullets in the US.
Co-researcher Professor Gabriel Filippelli from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis said: “I am particularly concerned about children, who can be exposed by using the firing ranges themselves or through the fine lead-laden dust that mom or dad come home with adhering to their clothes and skin.”
Laidlaw said lead-free bullets and primers (involved in combusting the cartridge) already existed.
“In the short term, we need better ventilation systems in indoor ranges and the development of airflow systems at outdoor ranges, protective clothing that is changed after shooting and a ban on smoking and eating at firing ranges.
“But the real solution is a transition to copper bullets and lead-free primers.
“That may seem like a big ask, but Australia phased out lead in petrol between 2000 and 2002 even though it was a challenge to the automotive and fuel industries.”
Background: Lead (Pb) is a toxic substance with well-known, multiple, long-term, adverse health outcomes. Shooting guns at firing ranges is an occupational necessity for security personnel, police officers, members of the military, and increasingly a recreational activity by the public. In the United States alone, an estimated 16,000–18,000 firing ranges exist. Discharge of Pb dust and gases is a consequence of shooting guns.
Methods: The objectives of this study are to review the literature on blood lead levels (BLLs) and potential adverse health effects associated with the shooting population. The search terms “blood lead”, “lead poisoning”, “lead exposure”, “marksmen”, “firearms”, “shooting”, “guns”, “rifles” and “firing ranges” were used in the search engines Google Scholar, PubMed and Science Direct to identify studies that described BLLs in association with firearm use and health effects associated with shooting activities.
Results: Thirty-six articles were reviewed that included BLLs from shooters at firing ranges. In 31 studies BLLs > 10 μg/dL were reported in some shooters, 18 studies reported BLLs > 20 μg/dL, 17 studies > 30 μg/d, and 15 studies BLLs > 40 μg/dL. The literature indicates that BLLs in shooters are associated with Pb aerosol discharge from guns and air Pb at firing ranges, number of bullets discharged, and the caliber of weapon fired.
Conclusions: Shooting at firing ranges results in the discharge of Pb dust, elevated BLLs, and exposures that are associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes. Women and children are among recreational shooters at special risk and they do not receive the same health protections as occupational users of firing ranges. Nearly all BLL measurements compiled in the reviewed studies exceed the current reference level of 5 μg/dL recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (CDC/NIOSH). Thus firing ranges, regardless of type and user classification, currently constitute a significant and unmanaged public health problem. Prevention includes clothing changed after shooting, behavioural modifications such as banning of smoking and eating at firing ranges, improved ventilation systems and oversight of indoor ranges, and development of airflow systems at outdoor ranges. Eliminating lead dust risk at firing ranges requires primary prevention and using lead-free primers and lead-free bullets.
Mark AS Laidlaw, Gabriel Filippelli, Howard Mielke, Brian Gulson, Andrew S Ball