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The danger they didn't warn you about in your firearms safety class

lead exposure a risk from guns
lead exposure a risk from guns
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

More people, especially women, are choosing to carry a firearm to protect themselves and their families when away from home. Too few are aware of the silent risk: lead poisoning.

Every time you handle your gun, the bullets, or enter the shooting range, you are being exposed to lead. How? Lead is used in making bullets, and is also in most primers. When the gun is fired, lead from the base of the bullet and burned primer is vaporized, spraying out in a cloud, along with particles of lead sheared off as the bullet travels down the barrel. The lead enters your lungs as well as settling on your gun, clothing and skin.

There is also lead residue on the ejected brass, so by just picking up brass and placing it in your pocket or hat, you're transferring lead to your hands and clothing. Even cleaning your gun increases the exposure because many solvents may actually cause lead to be absorbed into the skin more readily. If not removed, lead remains on your skin, clothing and shoes, sloughing off onto your carpets, your lunch, and your children.

Once inhaled or absorbed, lead readily crosses into the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body. It is actually seen by the body as calcium and readily accepted into bone, fat, and other soft tissue, interfering with iron absorption and damaging the brain and organs. Protecting yourself from repeated exposure is critical, as lead takes decades to break down, continuing to cause symptoms long after the initial exposure.

Children are at particular risk as they absorb 70% of the lead to which they are exposed, while adults only absorb 20%. Exposure to lead in children can result in slowed learning, impaired growth, hearing loss and behavioral problems.

Lead is classified as a carcinogen and a potential teratogen, an agent which can cause a birth defect. It affects both the sperm, as well as crosses the placenta to the fetus, potentially causing miscarriage or birth defects. Exposure can cause headaches and irritability, as well as muscle and joint pain. Repeated exposure can result in lead poisoning, with symptoms including metallic taste, colic, and muscle cramps. Lead poisoning may also damage the nervous system, brain, kidney, and cause anemia.

Granted, the various symptoms of over-exposure to lead could easily be mistaken for other problems, but if your physician is aware of your potential exposure, she can administer a simple set of blood tests to tell you if you, our your children, have become over-exposed to lead. In the meantime, offers the following tips for reducing your family's exposure to lead, as well as information on concealed carrying, and self-defense:

  • No Smoking, Eating or Drinking

You should never smoke during or immediately after shooting. Lead on your hands is transferred to the cigarette where it is drawn in with the smoke. The best practice is to leave everything that is not going to be used for shooting outside the range so it can’t be contaminated with any lead that may be present and that includes your ‘smokes’.
Lead dust on hands and face can be ingested through contact with food or by touching the face. Airborne lead can settle on food and drinks kept on the range or that you consume before washing up. Sealed water bottles may keep lead out of the water, but any lead on your hands and face and on the outside of the container can easily transfer to the mouth if it isn’t cleaned off first. Controlling this hazard is as simple as leaving all food and drinks off the range and washing hands and face before eating and drinking.

  • Lead on Fired Brass

Many shooters collect spent brass for reuse. The same brass that just came out of their firearm with lead deposited on it. It’s easy to put the brass in pockets or range bags or even caps. This further contaminates the clothing we’re wearing with lead. Using boxes or bags for the brass can help prevent this.

  • Lead on Face, Arms, and Hands

Shooters should wash hands, forearms and face thoroughly with cool water and plenty of soap. Use cold or room temperature water because warm water opens the pores of the skin helping lead to enter the skin. If no water is available, shooters should consider using wet hand wipes or a bottle of cool water and a washcloth to clean the hands and face. This prevents the transfer of lead to the food or beverages we drink preventing its ingestion.

  • Lead on Clothing

Shooters should consider wearing clothes they could change out of before driving home. Something as simple as a long sleeve shirt helps a lot. Do NOT blow, shake or use any means that will disperse lead into the air to try to remove lead from your clothing. To prevent cross-contamination, range clothes should be washed separately from the family’s regular laundry and an empty load run after the range clothes are washed. Families with infants should be careful to keep contamination away from where children crawl or pull up or that they may get into their mouths, since infants are particularly vulnerable to lead contamination by ingestion. Changing to clean clothing before leaving the range prevents contamination of the hands and any contamination of vehicles.

Just like a ‘range shirt’ that can be taken off and laundered can help keep lead from following you into the house a pair of range shoes that you change after shooting can help prevent you from tracking lead into the vehicle and home. If you can’t use a separate pair of range shoes remember to take your shoes off before coming into the house. Simple wiping of the shoes with a disposable cleaning wipe will help remove much of the lead. Remember, if you bring lead home ordinary vacuuming blows it into the air for everyone to become exposed.

  • Shower, Shampoo, and Change of Clothes

Lead can be transferred to others by contact. This is a much greater problem for professional shooters than casual shooters who spend long hours on the range but everyone should be aware of the potential. Try to avoid physical contact that could transfer lead dust to friends and family until after cleaning up and changing clothes.

  • Indoor Ranges

Most indoor ranges have a greater potential for lead exposure problems than outdoor ranges. However, the range can institute several controls to lower the amount of lead dust in these facilities.

The choice of ammunition is one such control. Non-jacketed ammunition produces the most lead dust and fumes, fully jacketed ammunition less and lead-free ammunition, obviously, the least. Shotgun shells produce more airborne lead dust than any handgun round. Currently, many ammunition manufacturers make available lead-free ammunition that does away with lead compounds in both the primer and the bullet. From a personal standpoint using lead-free primer ammunition with fully jacketed bullets or lead-free bullets will have the greatest benefit for individual shooters.

Indoor ranges should not be carpeted, since lead dust settles and contaminates the rugs. A commercial High Efficiency Particulate (HEPA) vacuum should be used to vacuum these carpets. Also, air should move from behind the shooters downrange taking as much of the lead from the firing of the firearms away from the shooter. The air in the range should not be reused or, if reused, it should be filtered so the air that blows across the shooter is cleaned of lead. Remember, if there’s a constant cloud of ‘gunsmoke’ and you can taste the sweetish metallic taste of lead in the air it’s probably not clean enough for a long shooting session.

Cleaning Firearms
For some of us, cleaning our firearms can be almost as relaxing as our range session. It also represents another opportunity to become exposed to lead that we can easily control. Some tips for reducing lead exposure when cleaning guns:

  • Wear nitrile gloves when cleaning your guns to keep the lead and cleaning solutions off your hands. (Latex gloves are fine if you don’t use solvent-based cleaners, but are of little use with solvents, because they tend to dissolve.)
  • Clean guns on a surface that isn’t porous and can be cleaned, or on something that can be thrown away.
  • Never use pressurized air to blow the surfaces clean or blow excess solvent/oil off while inside the home/shop.
  • Always clean your cleaning area right after each cleaning session. Place all disposable material in a sealed trash bag and throw it away.
  • Remember to wash your hands and face just like you do after a range session.
  • Remember, the goal is to keep the lead from getting spread throughout the home and these methods will help prevent that.
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