Lead Poisoning

By Nielsen, Eugene | Law & Order, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Lead Poisoning


Nielsen, Eugene, Law & Order


Lead poisoning is a very real safety hazard that every agency and officer needs to be aware of. The risk is much greater than most people realize. All shooters may be at risk.

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that shooters are exposed to every day. Indoor shooting ranges pose the greatest risk. According to studies, lead exposure can rise dramatically during firing practice at indoor shooting ranges. Permissible exposure limits can literally be exceeded within minutes.

Range personnel and others who work or shoot regularly at indoor shooting ranges are at greatest risk from lead poisoning. Firearms instructors have died as the result of airborne lead exposure at firing ranges.

Lead causes severe health effects at even relatively low levels in the body. It damages the brain, nervous system, kidneys, heart, reproductive system, and interferes with hemoglobin production. It also affects behavior. At typical levels of exposure, the blood, brain, and nervous system are primarily affected. The effects are often irreversible.

The gradual onset of symptoms of lead poisoning and the lack of specificity of the symptoms, which often affect more than one part of the body at a single time, results in lead poisoning often being misdiagnosed. The classic textbook physical signs of lead poisoning may not even be present. The symptoms of lead poisioning are often vague. Unless the patient raises the issue of lead poisoning or the doctor is extremely suspicious and the appropriate testing is done lead poisoning will go unrecognized.

Exposure to lead during pregnancy can cause birth defects and miscarriages. Lead in the mother's bloodstream easily passes through the placenta to the fetus and may cause gross deformation in development.

The margin of safety between measured blood lead levels and the levels that cause clinical symptoms is small. Children are more at risk than adults, as harmful effects from lead begin at lower blood levels. Although lead blood levels in children have been declining as a result of regulations designed to cut lead exposure, studies of the blood lead levels in children show concentrations of lead that are already above the levels that are known to cause changes in blood enzymes

Shooters and their families are exposed to lead residues from two sources ¾ lead in the cartridge priming compound and lead in the bullet. When a cartridge primer detonates and the powder charge is ignited, a cloud of lead particles is expelled into the air and onto the shooter's hands. Additional lead particles are sheared off the bullet as it travels down the barrel and expelled into the air at the muzzle. Lead is also expelled into the air when the bullet impacts the target.

When lead particles are inhaled into the lungs they are absorbed into the bloodstream. Approximately 50% of the lead that's inhaled reaches the bloodstream. Lead residues on the skin or in the hair can be absorbed through the pores. If any lead is ingested through the mouth, it will be absorbed through the intestines and enter the bloodstream. The amount of ingested lead that reaches the bloodstream will vary depending on the form of the lead. While approximately 10% of ingested lead reaches the bloodstream, 100% of ingested lead salts reaches the bloodstream.

According to the National Bureau of Standards, lead bullets are the source of 80% of the airborne lead at indoor firing ranges. Although primers are the source of only 20% of the airborne lead, the airborne lead from primers is much more fine and more easily absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled. The risks from ingestion of lead is also greater since lead salts are formed when a conventional lead syphnate primer is ignited.

Although this article deals with lead, readers should be aware that lead isn't the only health hazard from conventional primers. Although most US suppliers have non-toxic primers, styphnate primers, and some lead-free primers contain barium nitrate as an oxidizer. …

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