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Lead Poisoning and the Shooter

Lead Poisoning and the Shooter

Written by Mark Passamaneck, PE in May of 1999.

I have been shooting and hunting since I was 10 years old. I compete in several different shooting disciplines with long guns and handguns. I am a Lifetime member of the NRA and a member of several shooting organizations and clubs. I am a staunch advocate of the safe and proper use of firearms. I am always willing to help new shooters get involved and feel comfortable in the shooting sports. I work professionally as a mechanical engineer in the field of forensic engineering and I have performed a wide array of testing on firearms and ammunition.

The topic of lead poisoning, like many others, elicits response based on a lot of people's "feelings" and "what I heard from...". It makes it difficult to sort through and pick out the truth. Well, I researched it, did some testing, and consulted doctors who were experts on lead poisoning. Here is what I found out.

Lead is one of the most prominent metals in the earth. It's symbol is Pb; atomic number 82; atomic weight 207.19. Lead has many uses including solder, pipes, paint, gasoline, batteries and ammunition. Lead is very resistant to corrosion and some Roman lead pipe systems are still in use today.

Lead is called a systemic poison in the medical fields. It is typified as acute or chronic. Acute lead poisoning is rare and often connected to drug abuse. Chronic lead poisoning is more common and is associated with long term exposure and is a function of absorption over time and is affected by a person's age, diet and metabolic rate. Obvious symptoms will manifest themselves long before serious health problems occur. Lead can be absorbed through ingestion (eating) which represents only a 30 percent uptake opportunity. Most lead ingested is passed unchanged in the stool. Lead also is absorbed through breathing and has an uptake rate of about 40 percent. While lead can be absorbed through the skin, this normally occurs only with lead found in gasoline. Once lead is absorbed, it is transported to soft tissues where the half-life is about a month, then to bone tissue where the reservoir volume is high. Over 90 percent of lead found in bone mass is insoluble and does not present a major hazard. Lead affects practically all systems within the body. Lead at high levels (lead levels at or above 80 micrograms per deciliter (80 µg/dl) of blood) can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. Lower levels of lead can cause adverse health effects on the central nervous system, kidney, and blood cells. Blood lead levels as low as 10 µg/dl can impair mental and physical development. The most sensitive group to the affects of lead poisoning are children ages 1 to 6 years. Symptoms, for severe poisoning include temporary and/or permanent memory loss, other nervous system dysfunction such as shakes, vomiting, nausea, dizziness and other various issues depending on the intake path. The absolute worst symptom is birth defects in your children! If inhalation, lung cancer is a definite possibility.

First, lets talk about handling ammo, loaded ammo with jacketed bullets are no concern for handling. Hollow points with exposed lead must be handled a tad more cautiously but represent no big threat. Lead bullets, including .22s (even if coated) should be handled very carefully. Once you pick them up, handle, shoot them, you must wash your hands before you eat, smoke or drink. .22 slugs are actually worse than typical hard cast centerfire type lead slugs. I personally know a fellow who hunted with .22s for years and carried the lead bullets in his left front pocket. He has since discontinued the practice and been treated for lead poisoning. He also no longer possesses his left testicle. He lost it due to lead poisoning and the path of introduction was through his genitals. Second, cleaning guns, the residue on the gun and in the bore will contain lead, when you use solvents, you increase the risk of introducing lead into your blood stream by handling, especially if you have cuts on your hands. Be careful and wash your hands very well. Reloading of lead bullets has the same risk as handling lead ammo. I am not a caster so I am not very knowledgeable about good practices. However, I have used lead particulate measuring instrumentation at friend’s houses that cast and the lead levels of the air they breath is almost perfectly clean. Even the exhaust air is not too bad. For reloaders, the dust from the tumbling media has high levels of lead and separation should be done outdoors or with a vacuum. Dust from media could easily be one of the largest contributors to lead poisoning. Using the restroom after reloading or shooting is very dangerous also. The genital and anal skin easily allows absorption of lead. Ingestion and Absorption can be all but eliminated. So wash your hands after you touch lead or shoot. When you are engaged in these activities, do not eat, smoke, drink, have sex, or use the restroom until after you have thoroughly washed your hands.

Now to shooting. Yes there are lead compounds (not pure lead) in the primers. These compounds will have a lead-poisoning effect on you but it is not as serious as pure lead. There are a number of different ways in which lead dust and fume originates at ranges. These include; primers using lead styphnate as a detonator, and the vaporization and splintering of the projectile as it passes through the weapon after being fired (NIOSH 1975) as well as vaporization of the base of the bullet. Studies by researches from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) measured air lead levels in the breathing zones of 90 persons firing .38-caliber revolvers. Shooters firing lead bullets had mean lead exposures of 110 gglm3, calculated as an 8 hour time weighted average (TWA). 89 percent of the recorded exposures exceeded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permissible exposure level (PEL) of 50 gg/m3 for occupational exposure to lead (Lee 1986). Although most indoor firing ranges are not subject to OSHA standards, lead exposures should and can be maintained below levels of concern for protection of human health. The question raised is was the lead due to the primers or the bullets or what percentage of each?

FMJ ammo and lead slugs both introduce substantial amounts of airborne lead vapors (the absolute worst form) into the air. FMJ has exposed lead bases and the hot gases vaporize lead at the base of the bullet. How many of you have looked at the base of a fired lead or jacketed bullet? The granular and sometimes fractured appearance indicates gas cutting. Only TMJ (total metal jacket) or plated bullets eliminate lead vapors. I have conducted testing using instrumentation to measure the lead levels using the following components, FMJ, Lead, Plated, All Copper bullets, and lead compound based and lead-free primers. The contribution of airborne lead from the primers is minimal. I figured that the lead exposure from lead based primers in a semi-ventilated room 8'x8' would require the firing (and inhaling) of the gasses from only about 460,000 primers in order to place you over the exposure limit. That is about 12,000 rounds per year over 40 years. The lead level using lead slugs was 50 times that of plated and copper slugs with leaded primers. FMJs had about 20 times. That is only from the inhaling of the lead vapors. With plated or copper slugs, the difference between lead and no-lead primers was almost insignificant. The levels were less than 10% of the EPA exposure limits for 1000 hours airborne. You will get more lead than that from drinking water. Remember that all that smoke you see from shooting lead is mostly burned lube (5-30% is lead vapor). It is true that lead on the hands will be absorbed very little. But lead on the eyes, mouth, genitals and anus are absorbed readily. That is why it is so important to wash your hands after handling firearms that have been fired, after shooting, cleaning, reloading, or handling lead. I have been an active shooter in excess of 10 years and have my lead levels checked, they have never been even slightly abnormal and I do shoot at an indoor range once a week, but I use plated bullets and my club has a very good exhaust system. Lead does stay in your system for approximately 40 years. So it is a "lifetime" exposure accumulation that you are concerned with. For this reason regular checks are recommended.

For those of you who shoot a lot indoors, I am talking like more than 200 rounds a month, consider using lead safe, plated or FMJ bullets and be extra cautious. Jacketed bullets with the lead base exposed are no better for airborne lead than lead bullets and some are actually worse. Be observant of the amount of dust during range cleanup and how much ends up on your clothes and shoes. If you have infants or crawlers, it is best to have a pair of indoor range dedicated shoes that are kept away from children. Another side note, why do children like to eat lead based paints? Lead is sweet to the tongue. How many of you have had a sweet acrid taste in the back of your throat/mouth while shooting at an indoor range? That is lead!

There are different methods for riding the body of lead. Natural methods include certain herbal blends and Vitamin C. A diet high in Iron and Calcium is also a cure. But these process are slow. The fastest way is using a product called EDTA (Ethylene-Diamine-Tetra-Acetic Acid) which is in a solution, applied intravenously, that consists mostly of distilled water and a few additives (Vitamin C, Magnesium, heparin, among others) in a process known as Chelation therapy. Chelation therapy grew out of German industrial research in the 20's looking for a way to make water really free of minerals for the electroplating and metal-etching industries. Later in the 50's in Detroit, a physician named Dr Clark who was treating lead-poisoned auto workers, found that Chelation with EDTA not only removed lead, but also freed many of his auto-worker patients from their symptoms of cardiovascular disease! EDTA has the ability to bind with metals in the blood and soft tissues and allows the body to excrete them, thus detoxifying the patient. Chelation is also expensive!

The exposure limits, for adults are; CDC Adults: < 10 µg/dL, OSHA Adults: 40 µg/dL, Life Threatening Adults: 80 µg/dL. They are 10% less for children.

Hope this has answered some questions and left you better informed. 

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