Got Lead?

Ever since frontiersmen in Pennsylvania began "shooting at the mark" in the early 1700s, shooting ranges have been recreational sites for Americans. They are the place hunters have drifted to as the government closes more grounds and hunting animals goes out of vogue. Increasingly, the gun industry also depends on them for its survival.

But what Americans don’t know is that the U.S.'s 4,000 shooting ranges are contaminated. According to a recent report issued by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Violence Policy Center (VPC), ranges cause pollution and harm human beings. The EWG/VPC report, "Poisonous Pastime," highlights the dangers caused by high levels of lead at indoor and outdoor shooting ranges nationwide. It reports that prolonged contact with areas infested with lead can poison not only the users of shooting ranges but also their families. Furthermore, the total amount of lead released into the environment from shooting ranges is one the largest industrial sources of lead pollution in the U.S.

How does it happen?

Lead poisoning at indoor ranges comes mostly from inhaling lead particles present in the air. These particles emit at different stages in the shooting process: from the ignition of the primer (the part of the bullet that is struck by the firing pin), which contains lead styphnate; from lead particles scraped off the bullet as it runs through the gun barrel; and from lead dust created when the bullet strikes a target or backstop.

Casting of one's own bullets is also a source of lead poisoning in indoor and outdoor shooting ranges. This is a common process among gun users that involves pouring molten lead into molds of different sizes to create the caliber bullet desired. The melting of lead can create fumes that remain in the air for hours, which in turn can be inhaled by humans and contaminate immediate surfaces. In "Poisonous Pastime," the director of a New Hampshire occupational health center attests that some of the worst cases of lead poisoning occur among individuals who make their own bullets.

Who is at risk?

Obviously, the people most at risk are those who spend lots of time at shooting ranges. High levels of lead poisoning have been found in firearm instructors, range employees and frequent shooters, all of whom are exposed to lead continuously, either by fumes and airborne particles or through direct contact during firearm cleaning, range and target cleaning and bullet casting.

Although most symptoms of lead poisoning can be detected only over long periods of time, lead exposure at shooting ranges can be so severe, according to several reported cases sited in the study, that people can suffer consequences in days or months. A police firearms instructor died in his sleep of respiratory failure after five days of intense lead exposure during a training course. In an indoor range in Baltimore, a 17-year-old part-time maintenance worker fell ill after only one month’s employment.

The families of shooters and range employees are also at risk. Because lead dust settles on essentially everything that is brought home from the firing range (shoes, clothes, bags, firearms, lunch boxes, etc.), range users and employees can pollute their own households. In "Poisonous Pastime," a New Hampshire police captain warns, "If you take your clothing home, you actually contaminate the family clothing when you wash it together."

People living or working in the vicinity of indoor ranges' ventilation systems are also at risk. In Clearwater, Florida, for example, a day care center was shut down after it was discovered the ventilation systems of the adjacent shooting range were releasing exhaust onto the center’s playground. Later, the lead levels outside the fan were found to be 8,000 times higher than what the county’s Department of Environmental Management has determined acceptable.

Construction workers hired to renovate, repair or tear down both indoor and outdoor shooting ranges also fall into the category of people affected by lead poisoning without engaging in the recreation. The report states that California health officials have experienced "some serious lead poisoning cases among construction employees engaged in the demolition of a firing range, as well as among these employees'children."

What does it do?

Lead exposure is arguably the world's longest known health hazard. Although lead poisoning has been a recognized health hazard for over 2000 years, only recently have research organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, concerned themselves with low-level lead exposure. The EPA and the Center for Disease Control affirm that lead can harm virtually every system in the human body.

The effects of lead poisoning include damage to the brain and central nervous system, kidney disease, high blood pressure and anemia. Lead poisoning also can affect the reproductive system, causing decreased sex drive, abnormal menstrual periods, impotence, premature ejaculation, sterility, reduction in number of sperm cells and damage to sperm cells resulting in birth defects, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Exposure to lead is common among workers in such industries as construction, chemicals, batteries, rubber and manufacturing. But everyone is exposed to lead from such daily habits as breathing, drinking, eating and ingesting dust or soil that contains lead particles. Lead intake among children, however, tends to be much higher on average because they have more hand-to-mouth activity than adults.

Children put into their mouth lead paint chips that peel off the walls or their parents' clothes left on the ground after coming back from a shooting range. A lead poisoning FAQ-sheet published by the EPA states that "lead is particularly harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and young children." Numerous studies also have linked high lead levels in children's blood to low scores on IQ tests.

Moreover, according to the "Poisonous Pastime" report, there is now growing evidence that lead poisoning may cause violent behavior, especially in children. Dr. Deborah Denno, a sociologist and professor at Fordham Law School who has studied the relationship between lead and violence among boys, said: "Lead had its own independent effect on delinquency and adult criminality, separate from IQ." A study conducted by Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, concluded: "Lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses."

Just as alarming are the environmental effects of shooting ranges. According to "Poisonous Pastime," shooters at outdoor ranges have released millions of tons of lead into the environment that are poisoning wildlife, contaminating water sources and polluting wetlands into which lead falls.

"There is no question that the toxic levels of lead at shooting ranges are endangering America's children and families," says VPC senior policy analyst and report author Tom Diaz. "No amount of lead exposure is known to be completely safe for a child. 'Poisonous Pastime' reveals for the first time that the gun industry -- through toxic and unregulated ranges -- is sacrificing the health of our children for profit."

For more information visit the Violence Center Policy website.

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