Author: Anna Reilly, PhD, MPH and Jocelyn Lewis, PhD, MSPH; Office of Public Health, Occupational Health Program
Across the nation and in Louisiana, target shooting is growing in popularity. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, more than 20 million Americans enjoy target shooting. And if you think the popularity is limited to older men, you’d miss the mark. In fact, competitive shooting is one of the fastest growing high school and community-based sports in the country.
Time spent at firing ranges, particularly indoor shooting ranges, poses health risks due to lead exposure. In Louisiana, there are at least 50 shooting ranges; about a third of these are indoor ranges. A comprehensive study published in Environmental Health compiles numerous other studies that show people who are frequent gun range users, and the staff of these facilities, are at high risk of exposure to dangerous amounts of lead.
In fact, the analysis of 36 studies over the past 40 years shows those who patronize gun ranges have higher blood levels of lead than the reference level recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 2009 to November 2015, a test was considered positive when blood lead concentration exceeded 10 μg/dL (10 micrograms per deciliter). However, at the end of 2015 the designated reference blood lead level for adults was decreased to 5 μg/dL as current research has found that negative health effects can occur when blood lead levels are as low as 5 μg/dL.
In order to protect health and promote safe gun and firing range practices, the Department’s Section of Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology has initiated a campaign to alert people about potential lead exposure while working at or visiting indoor shooting ranges.
Who is at risk?
Indoor firing ranges are a source of lead exposure for:
- Those who work at a shooting range
- Target and hobby shooters
- Members of shooting teams
- Law enforcement officers who practice at ranges
How does lead exposure happen?
Most ammunition contains lead. Lead exposure occurs in indoor firing ranges when health and safety controls are not in place to protect shooters and firing range staff from exposure to lead.
When a gun is fired, lead vapors are released into the air and can be breathed into the body. Lead dust can also settle on food, water, clothes and other nearby objects.
People can ingest lead dust when they touch lead contaminated surfaces, then eat, drink or smoke.
People who work at a firing range can also be exposed to airborne lead dust when cleaning the range and guns or emptying bullet trays.
Workers and hobby shooters can also carry lead home on their clothing and skin, and potentially expose their families to toxic levels of lead.
Lead in the home is especially dangerous for children and women of childbearing age. No safe blood lead level has been identified for children. Exposure in children increases the risks for irreversible nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.
Health effects of lead exposure
Health effects from lead that has entered the body can become permanent. High levels of lead can result in damage to the brain, kidneys, liver, heart and reproductive system. Symptoms may include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, mood swings, headaches and confusion. A blood lead test can help to distinguish lead poisoning from other illnesses.
Firing range health tips
The Department of Health offers this guidance to people who use firing ranges:
Make sure the firing range has good ventilation to reduce airborne lead levels at the firing line. General exhaust ventilation is not adequate. Indoor firing ranges must ensure supplied air moves steadily across all shooting booths to carry the gun smoke away from the shooter’s face and directly down the range where it is exhausted, filtered and discharged. A separate ventilation system exclusively for the range is recommended. Air monitoring for lead is recommended.
Firing range operators should keep the range and other workplace areas clean using proper cleaning procedures such as wet-mopping and vacuuming with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
To protect yourself
Lead poisoning is preventable. The following steps are recommended to prevent lead exposure in firing ranges:
Use jacketed ammunition, preferably with non-lead primers.
Never eat, drink or smoke inside a firing range.
Wash hands immediately after shooting, cleaning firearms, picking up spent casing pellets or reloading ammunition. Wash hands, forearms and face before eating, drinking, smoking or contact with other people.
Change clothes and shoes before leaving the firing range.
Wash clothes or uniforms used at the firing range separately from your family’s clothing.
Check with your health care provider to have your blood lead level tested routinely.
Never place lead bullets in your mouth.
For more information, the Louisiana Department of Health has developed a guide to preventing lead exposure at firing ranges. Download a copy here.