Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Lead Poisoning: A Firearms Safety Hazard

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Lead Poisoning: A Firearms Safety Hazard

Article excerpt

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies lead as a highly toxic heavy metal with no beneficial biological use in the body.(1) When a person inhales or ingests lead, it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the body, it becomes very difficult to remove. Continual exposure results in the accumulation of lead in the body, and measurable amounts of lead indicate cumulative exposure over a lifetime.

The EPA has determined that lead poses a serious health hazard to everyone. Unfortunately, individuals working with and around firearms often overlook the harmful effects of lead. Therefore, firearms range personnel must take precautions to control all unnecessary exposure to this toxic element. For firearms range personnel, knowing the hazards of lead is a primary responsibility; taking the necessary precautions to minimize exposure is a duty.

Effects of Lead on the Body

Approximately 6 percent of all lead ingested or inhaled is deposited in the blood or soft body tissues, such as the kidneys, brain, or other vital organs. The remaining 94 percent is deposited in bone. Because the body mistakes lead for calcium, it presumes that, once deposited, the lead needs to be stored.

The body does, however, break down lead so that it can be removed. The time required for this process is measured by the term "half-life," which means the amount of time the body needs to excrete one-half of the lead dose.

Lead in the bloodstream and in soft body tissue has a half-life of approximately 30-40 days and is excreted through urine, bile, sweat, hair, and nails. However, lead deposited in bone has a half-life of approximately 20 years. That is, one-half of the lead dosage absorbed by the body through only one exposure and deposited in the bone would still be present after 20 years.

Health Concerns

For decades, the presence of lead in the environment has been widespread, beginning with smelting factories and continuing with the manufacture of glazed pottery, batteries, and leaded gasoline. Only recently has it been acknowledged as a serious threat to public health that warranted government control.

In 1971, the EPA began enforcing the Lead Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which restricts the amount of lead used in paints. Seven years later, the agency set the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which served as the primary mechanism to reduce lead in gasoline. However, even with these standards and other controls, the residue of lead in food, water, and dirt can elevate the lead level in a person's blood.

Firearms and Exposure to Lead

The exposure to lead on the firing line occurs as soon as the shooter pulls the trigger and the hammer falls. This action causes the primer of the cartridge in the chamber to explode, which ignites the main powder charge. At this point, a breathable cloud of lead particles is expelled into the air, with lead dust spraying the shooter's hands.

Lead particles also shear off as the bullet travels through the barrel. When the bullet leaves the barrel, a second cloud of contaminants, in the form of the muzzle blast, bursts into the air. Then, as the bullet strikes the impact area, another contaminated cloud rises.

When shooters inhale these clouds of contaminants, lead particles go directly into their lungs and are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. The blood then transfers the lead to soft body tissue and bone. Heat from smoking, sweating, or physical activity accelerates this process.

Lead can also settle on the skin and hair, and in turn, be absorbed through the pores of the skin. If lead particles reach the mouth, they can be ingested into the digestive system.

Exposure increases at cleanup time, because handling empty casings can result in lead being transferred to the skin. The cleaning process also removes much of the remaining lead in the barrel and transfers it to the cleaner's hands. …

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