Last updated on November 6th, 2023
As a gun owner, it is important to be aware of the potential risks of lead exposure, which can come from shooting, handling, or cleaning firearms. Lead is a toxic substance that can cause a range of health problems, including neurological and developmental issues, as well as damage to the kidneys, liver, and other organs. To protect yourself from lead exposure, there are several steps you can take, and if you’ve already got lead poisoning, there are remedies.
While every shooter should take exposure to lead seriously, the more someone shoots, the more they are exposed. Therefore professional shooters, firearm instructors, and range staff need to take lead exposure and treatments even more seriously than the average shooter.
Table of contents
- Range Selection to Reduce Lead Exposure
- Ammunition Selection to Reduce Lead Exposure
- Protective Gear to Reduce Lead Exposure
- Cleaning after Shooting
- Washing Clothes to Reduce Lead Exposure
- Symptoms you may Already Have Lead Poison
- Treatment for High Lead Levels
- Additional Precautions to Reduce the Shooter’s Lead Exposure
- What the CDC says about Lead Poison
- What OSHA says about Lead Exposure at Shooting Ranges
- What the EPA says about Lead Exposure at Shooting Ranges
- Summary TLDR
- My Personal Story
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Range Selection to Reduce Lead Exposure
Different types of shooting ranges and backstops can have varying degrees of effectiveness in reducing lead exposure to shooters. For example, most outdoor ranges may have natural backstops, such as hillsides or berms, which can reduce the amount of lead that becomes airborne and potentially exposed to shooters. Additionally, outdoor ranges may have better ventilation than indoor ranges, which can help to reduce the concentration of lead particles in the air.
Indoor ranges, on the other hand, may have higher levels of airborne lead particles due to the confined space and reduction in ventilation. Rubber backstops can be an effective way to reduce lead exposure in indoor shooting ranges. Rubber backstops have the advantage of being able to absorb the impact of bullets, reducing the likelihood of ricochets and fragmentation that can generate lead particles.
Steel backstops, on the other hand, can generate lead particles when bullets strike the surface, which can become airborne and potentially expose shooters to lead.
It is important to note that both rubber and steel backstops require regular maintenance and cleaning to prevent the accumulation of lead particles. This includes using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, and good hygiene practices for range operators and shooters. The cleaner the range, the less likely you will be exposed to lead.
Ammunition Selection to Reduce Lead Exposure
The use of lead-free ammunition can significantly reduce lead exposure to shooters. Lead-free bullets are typically made from materials such as copper, zinc, or steel, which do not contain lead. Here are some statistics to consider:
According to a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using lead-free bullets can reduce lead exposure by up to 95% compared to traditional lead bullets. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_oswer_012_003.pdf
A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that using copper bullets resulted in a 95% reduction in airborne lead levels compared to lead bullets.
The National Park Service has reported that the use of lead-free ammunition has significantly reduced lead exposure in wildlife that consume lead-contaminated carcasses. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, the percentage of bald eagles with lead poisoning decreased from 70% to less than 10% after the park switched to lead-free ammunition for hunting activities. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/upload/Lead-free-Hunting-Report.pdf
Lead-free ammunition has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many manufacturers offering a variety of options for hunters and shooters. According to a report by the Rand Corporation, sales of lead-free ammunition increased from approximately 1% in 2008 to 30% in 2017.
While lead-free ammunition is the most effective way to reduce lead exposure to shooters, other types of ammunition may also offer some reduction in lead exposure. Here are a few examples:
Frangible bullets: Frangible bullets are designed to break apart on impacts with a hard surface, such as a steel target or backstop. Frangible bullets are typically made from a combination of powdered metals, such as copper, tungsten, or zinc, along with a binding agent, such as polymer or wax. Because they disintegrate into small particles, they can reduce the amount of lead released into the air. However, frangible bullets are typically more expensive than traditional ammunition and may not be suitable for all types of shooting.
Copper-plated or “jacketed” bullets: Copper-jacketed bullets have a thin layer of copper coating over a lead core. While the copper coating can reduce the amount of lead that is released into the air when the bullet impacts a target or backstop, it is not as effective as lead-free ammunition.
It is important to note that even with these alternative types of ammunition if you are the only one shooting the lead-free or reduced lead ammunition, it won’t make much of a difference. If everyone else around you is shooting lead ammunition, you will still have exposure.
Protective Gear to Reduce Lead Exposure
Shooters can wear certain types of protective gear while shooting and cleaning to reduce lead exposure. Here are some examples:
- Gloves: Wearing gloves while shooting and cleaning can help prevent lead contamination on the skin. Disposable nitrile gloves are an effective option, but thicker gloves may be necessary for extended shooting sessions.
- Respirators: A properly fitted N95 or N100 respirator can reduce inhalation of lead dust and fumes while shooting or cleaning. Respirators with replaceable cartridges that are specifically designed for lead dust and fumes are also available.
- Eye protection: Safety glasses or goggles can prevent lead dust and fumes from getting into the eyes while shooting or cleaning.
- Clothing: Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants can help prevent lead contamination on the skin. Clothing made of synthetic materials is recommended, as lead particles stick better to natural fibers.
- Wearing a hat while shooting or cleaning will not directly reduce lead exposure. However, a hat can help prevent lead dust and particles from getting into the hair, which can then be transferred to other surfaces or the skin. Additionally, a hat with a brim can help prevent lead dust and particles from falling onto the face and being ingested.
- Shoe covers: Disposable shoe covers can prevent lead dust and particles from being tracked out of the shooting range.
It is important to note that while protective gear can reduce lead exposure, it should not be relied upon as the sole method of protection. Good hygiene practices and regular cleaning and maintenance of the shooting range and equipment are still necessary to minimize lead exposure.
Cleaning after Shooting
Cleaning yourself of lead after shooting is also an important aspect of responsible gun ownership. Exposure to lead can occur when handling firearms or shooting at indoor ranges where lead particles can become airborne. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of lead exposure:
- Use lead removal wipes: There are commercially available lead removal wipes that can help to remove lead particles from your skin. These wipes are typically pre-moistened with a solution that can help to dissolve and remove lead particles. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using these wipes.
- Wash your hands: The first step in reducing lead exposure is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after shooting. Make sure to scrub your hands thoroughly, including your nails and the areas between your fingers. Special lead-removing hand soaps are also available which are designed to remove lead and other heavy metals.
- Remove your clothing: After shooting, it is a good idea to remove your clothing and change into clean clothes. This can help to prevent lead particles from being transferred to other areas of your home or vehicle.
- Shower: Taking a shower after shooting can help to remove any lead particles that may be on your skin. Make sure to use warm water and soap, and pay special attention to areas where lead particles are likely to accumulate, such as around the ears, neck, and hairline.
- Avoid touching your face or mouth: Lead particles can be ingested if you touch your face or mouth after handling firearms or shooting. To reduce your risk of exposure, avoid touching your face or mouth until you have washed your hands thoroughly.
Washing Clothes to Reduce Lead Exposure
Regular detergents may not be the most effective at removing lead dust from clothing. Lead particles can adhere strongly to fabric, and traditional washing methods may not be sufficient to remove them.
To remove lead dust from clothing, it is recommended to use a specialized lead-removing detergent that is specifically designed to break down and remove lead particles from the fabric. These detergents contain chelating agents that bind with the lead and remove it from the fabric during the washing process.
- LeadOff: This detergent is specifically formulated to remove lead and heavy metal contaminants from clothing and skin. It contains a chelating agent that binds with lead particles and removes them from the fabric.
- ProWash: This detergent is designed to remove lead and other heavy metal particles from clothing and gear. It is effective at removing lead dust and particles from hunting clothing, range gear, and other items that may be contaminated with lead.
- D-Lead Laundry Detergent: This detergent is designed to remove lead and other heavy metals from skin and clothing. It contains a chelating agent that binds with lead particles and removes them from the fabric.
It is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a lead-removing detergent, as they may require different washing methods or temperatures than traditional detergents. Additionally, it is important to avoid shaking or brushing clothing before washing, as this can release lead particles into the air and increase the risk of exposure.
Symptoms you may Already Have Lead Poison
Lead poisoning is a serious condition that can occur when a person is exposed to high levels of lead over time. While lead poisoning is more common in children, adults can also be affected by lead exposure. Here are some common symptoms of lead poisoning in adults:
- Fatigue: One of the most common symptoms of lead poisoning in adults is fatigue or weakness. This can occur even with mild exposure to lead and can be a sign that the body is being affected by the toxic metal.
- Headaches: Lead exposure can also cause frequent headaches or migraines, which may be accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness or nausea.
- Joint pain: Lead can accumulate in the bones and soft tissues of the body, leading to joint pain or stiffness. This is a common symptom of chronic lead poisoning and may be especially pronounced in the wrists, fingers, and ankles.
- Abdominal pain: Lead poisoning can also cause abdominal pain or discomfort, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or constipation. This can be a sign that lead is affecting the digestive system.
- Mood changes: Lead exposure can also affect mood and behavior, leading to depression, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.
- Memory loss: Long-term exposure to lead can also affect cognitive function, leading to memory loss or difficulty learning new information.
- High blood pressure: Lead exposure can also cause high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are concerned about lead exposure, it is important to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional. A blood test can be used to measure lead levels in the body, and treatment may be necessary to reduce the risk of long-term health effects.
Lead poisoning in children can cause a variety of symptoms and health problems, including:
- Developmental delays or learning difficulties
- Irritability or mood changes
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Fatigue or weakness
- Abdominal pain, vomiting, or constipation
- Seizures or convulsions
- Developmental regression (loss of skills)
- Hearing loss or visual disturbances
- Hyperactivity or inattention
Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, and they tend to absorb more lead than adults. Even low levels of lead exposure can cause permanent damage to a child’s brain and nervous system, leading to lifelong learning and behavioral problems.
It is important to note that many children with lead poisoning may not exhibit any symptoms at all, which is why regular screening and testing are important for children who are at risk of exposure, such as those who shoot, live in older homes or areas with high levels of environmental lead. If you suspect that your child may have been exposed to lead, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider and have your child tested as soon as possible.
Treatment for High Lead Levels
If you’ve already contracted lead poisoning, the first thing to do is to limit your exposure. The amount of lead in the bloodstream typically decreases rapidly once exposure has stopped. Lead is processed by the liver and excreted from the body when using the bathroom. The half-life of lead in the bloodstream is estimated to be about 30 days, which means that it takes approximately 30 days for the amount of lead in the bloodstream to decrease by half.
However, it is important to note that even low levels of lead exposure can have harmful long-term effects on the body, and lead can accumulate in the bones, teeth, and other tissues over time, where it can cause long-term health problems. Some studies suggest that lead can remain in bone for decades or even a lifetime, even after blood levels have returned to normal.
Vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, and vitamin C, can be used as a complementary treatment for high lead levels in the blood. These nutrients can help to reduce the absorption of lead in the body and improve overall health, but they should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment.
Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for reducing the absorption of lead in the body. It competes with lead for absorption in the digestive system and can help to prevent lead from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Studies have shown that taking calcium supplements can significantly reduce blood lead levels in children and adults.
Iron is another important nutrient for reducing lead absorption. Iron deficiency can increase the absorption of lead in the body, so it is important to maintain adequate iron levels through a healthy diet or supplements.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help to protect the body against the damaging effects of lead. It can also help to improve the absorption of iron and other nutrients that can help to reduce lead levels in the body.
Other vitamins and minerals that may be beneficial for reducing lead levels in the body include vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc. However, it is important to talk to a healthcare professional before starting any vitamin or mineral supplements, as excessive amounts of some nutrients can be harmful.
While vitamins and minerals can help to reduce the absorption of lead in the body, they should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have high lead levels in your blood, it is important to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional. They can help you to identify the source of lead exposure, develop a treatment plan, and monitor your progress over time.
The medical treatment for high lead blood levels, also known as lead poisoning, varies depending on the severity of the condition. In mild cases, the treatment may involve simply reducing exposure to lead sources and monitoring the patient’s blood lead levels over time. However, in more severe cases, medical treatment may be necessary to prevent long-term damage to organs and the nervous system.
The first step in treating lead poisoning is to identify and remove the source of lead exposure. In cases where blood lead levels are very high or the patient is experiencing symptoms of lead poisoning, medical treatment may be necessary. This may involve chelation therapy, a process in which a medication is given to the patient to help remove lead from the body. Chelation therapy can be administered orally or intravenously and works by binding to the lead and facilitating its excretion through the urine.
It is important to note that chelation therapy can have side effects and should only be administered by a qualified healthcare professional. In addition, it may not be effective in all cases of lead poisoning and is usually reserved for severe cases.
In some cases, other medications may be prescribed to help manage symptoms of lead poisoning, such as pain, seizures, or high blood pressure. Patients with severe lead poisoning may also require hospitalization and supportive care, such as intravenous fluids and monitoring of organ function.
Overall, the treatment for high lead blood levels depends on the severity of the condition and the individual patient’s needs. The most effective way to prevent lead poisoning is to avoid exposure to lead sources in the first place, such as by using lead-free products and following safe handling practices for lead-containing materials.
Additional Precautions to Reduce the Shooter’s Lead Exposure
Reducing your exposure to lead while shooting at the range is important to protect your health and the health of those around you. Here are some additional precautions you can take while on the range to reduce your exposure to lead:
Wear protective gear: Wearing protective gear such as gloves, a mask or respirator, and safety glasses can help to reduce your exposure to lead particles. These items can help to prevent lead from coming into contact with your skin or being inhaled.
Wash your hands regularly: Washing your hands regularly while on the range can help to remove lead particles that may be on your skin. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap water, paying special attention to the areas around your nails and between your fingers.
Avoid eating, drinking, or smoking on the range: Eating, drinking, or smoking on the range can increase your risk of ingesting lead particles. Avoid these activities until you have thoroughly washed your hands and removed any lead particles from your clothing.
Don’t place jackets, purses, or fabric items on the floor of the shooting range. It is not uncommon to see these fabric items laying around on the dirty range floor.
By taking these precautions, you can help to reduce your exposure to lead while on the range and protect your health and the health of those around you.
What the CDC says about Lead Poison
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a leading authority on lead poisoning and its prevention and treatment. Here are some key points that the CDC makes about lead poisoning and treatment:
Prevention is key: The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to minimize exposure to lead. This can be done by avoiding products that contain lead, such as certain types of paint or ceramics, and by taking precautions to reduce lead exposure in the workplace or during hobbies like shooting.
Testing is important: Regular testing for lead levels is important, especially for children and those who are at risk of exposure. Blood tests can be used to measure lead levels and detect lead poisoning early.
Chelation therapy is a treatment option: For individuals with high levels of lead in their blood, chelation therapy may be recommended. This involves the use of medication to remove lead from the body. Chelation therapy should only be done under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.
Vitamins and minerals can help: Certain vitamins and minerals, such as calcium and iron, can help to reduce the absorption of lead in the body. These supplements may be recommended as part of a treatment plan for lead poisoning.
Environmental remediation may be necessary: In cases of severe lead poisoning, it may be necessary to clean up contaminated environments to prevent further exposure. This may involve removing lead-based paint or replacing contaminated soil.
Follow-up care is important: Individuals who have been treated for lead poisoning should receive regular follow-up care to monitor their progress and ensure that lead levels remain within safe limits.
Overall, the CDC recommends a comprehensive approach to the prevention and treatment of lead poisoning, including measures to minimize exposure, regular testing, and appropriate medical treatment when necessary.
What OSHA says about Lead Exposure at Shooting Ranges
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidelines for the prevention of lead exposure in workplaces, including shooting ranges. Here are some key points that OSHA makes about lead exposure prevention at shooting ranges:
Implement a lead management program: Shooting ranges should have a lead management program in place to identify and control potential sources of lead exposure. This may include regular testing of air and surfaces for lead, and the use of engineering controls and personal protective equipment to minimize exposure.
Provide training: Employees and shooters at the range should be provided with training on the risks of lead exposure and how to prevent exposure. This should include information on the use of personal protective equipment, hygiene practices, and the proper handling and disposal of lead-contaminated materials.
Use engineering controls: Engineering controls such as ventilation systems and lead-reducing ammunition should be used to minimize lead exposure. Range design should also consider minimizing airborne lead exposure by providing proper ventilation systems and controlling air flow.
Use personal protective equipment: Personal protective equipment such as gloves, respirators, and protective clothing should be used to minimize skin and inhalation exposure to lead particles. The use of disposable clothing and equipment can also help to prevent contamination and the spread of lead particles.
Practice good hygiene: Employees and shooters should practice good hygiene, including washing their hands and face regularly and removing contaminated clothing before leaving the range. Showers and clean-up areas should be provided for employees and shooters to use after shooting.
Regularly monitor lead levels: Regular monitoring of lead levels in the air, on surfaces, and in the blood of employees and shooters is important to identify and control potential sources of exposure.
Overall, OSHA recommends a comprehensive approach to lead exposure prevention at shooting ranges, including the use of engineering controls, personal protective equipment, good hygiene practices, and regular monitoring and testing.
What the EPA says about Lead Exposure at Shooting Ranges
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also provides guidance on lead exposure prevention at shooting ranges. Here are some key points that the EPA makes about lead exposure at shooting ranges:
Manage lead waste: Shooting ranges should have procedures in place for the safe management and disposal of lead-contaminated waste, such as spent ammunition, bullet fragments, and soil. This may include regular testing of soil for lead contamination and proper disposal of lead-contaminated waste.
Use lead-reducing practices: Practices such as using lead-free ammunition or lead-reducing ammunition, and minimizing the use of lead-based targets and backstops, can help to reduce lead exposure at shooting ranges.
Conduct regular clean-up: Shooting ranges should conduct regular cleaning and maintenance to minimize lead exposure. This may include the use of vacuum systems with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to remove lead particles from surfaces and air, and regular cleaning of floors, walls, and other surfaces.
Provide education and training: Range operators, employees, and shooters should be provided with education and training on the risks of lead exposure and how to prevent exposure. This may include information on the proper use of personal protective equipment, hygiene practices, and the proper handling and disposal of lead-contaminated materials.
Overall, the EPA recommends a comprehensive approach to lead exposure prevention at shooting ranges, including the safe management and disposal of lead waste, the use of lead-reducing practices, regular clean-up and maintenance, education and training, and compliance with applicable regulations.
This article is packed with information but it boils down to this: Lead exposure is serious and the more someone shoots, the more they are exposed to lead. There are precautions that one can take to limit their exposure such as covering their skin while shooting, washing their hands and clothes after shooting, not eating or drinking on the range, and choosing the proper shooting range and ammunition.
Vitamins and supplements may reduce the likelihood of contracting lead poisoning and may be used to treat lead poisoning. However, for those who have a serious case of lead poisoning, medical treatments are available.
My Personal Story
I am on the range at least once a week, sometimes as often as 3 or 4 times a week. Because I live and work in the Chicago area, 90% of the time, these are indoor ranges. To say my exposure to lead is high would be an understatement. The only people in the shooting industry who have a higher risk than myself are the full-time shooting range employees. In early April 2023, the results of my blood lead levels were 700% higher than normal.
Everything hurts. That’s one of the symptoms. I thought I was coming down with arthritis all over my body. That is part of what prompted me to go to the doctor. I generally dislike doctors. It had been 5 years since I had been to the doctor. I knew my lead exposure was higher than average so on a whim I asked my lead to be checked. I’m glad I did.
The doctor and his nurse practitioner had absolutely no idea how to treat this. During my follow-up appointment, the looks on their faces were amusing to me, they were scared. I wasn’t scared, because while it was new to them, and it was new to me, I spent some time on reputable medical websites like Mayoclinic and VeryWellHealth. It was apparent to me that they did not.
Their answer? “Stop shooting“. I laughed at them and informed them, “That isn’t going to happen.” So it was up to me to determine my own path for treatment. I’m no medical professional and am experimenting here, but this is what I came up with:
- Wearing more PPE while on the range, ESPECIALLY indoor ranges. This includes hats to keep the dust out of my hair as well as long sleeve shirts.
- Using lead decontaminating wipes and being sure to wash my face, hands and hair immediately before leaving the range. I admit I got lazy with this, and that is very likely the largest reason why my lead levels have spiked.
- Separating my range clothes from my every day clothes and washing the range clothes with lead-removing detergents.
- Beginning a vitamin therapy regiment which should remove the lead in my system and reduce the chance of future lead contamination. It’s very likely this vitamin regiment will be part of my daily life for the rest of my life.
- Having my blood checked monthly until my lead levels have gone down to an acceptable level and then making sure to routinely have my lead levels checked once annually.
I knew the dangers of lead, but took it for granted with the “It won’t happen to my attitude.” and now I am paying the price. We don’t have to stop shooting, we just need to take necessary precautions.
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