Shooting guns for recreational purposes is lot of fun. Of course, safety is always a priority. I hope everyone knows the four rules of safe firearm handling:
• All guns are loaded. Even if you know the gun is unloaded, always treat it as if it is loaded.
• Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
• Always keep your finger off the trigger unless you are in the process of taking a shot.
• Always know your target and what’s beyond your target.
With that being said, there is still another hidden danger of shooting. It is something you cannot see, and it can lurk undetected. It’s lead exposure.
Most bullets are made of lead, and anyone who frequently shoots or handles ammunition may be at risk of elevated lead levels in their blood. Exposure to lead occurs through ingestion, inhalation and dermal contact, and can accumulate in the body over time. Lead bullets release lead dust when fired and when making impact.
I don’t want to scare anyone. The occasional shooter who visits the range a few times a year is at no risk. This applies more to the very active shooter, anyone who reloads ammunition, and those working at firing ranges. For the average gun owner, your exposure is quite minimal.
Lead accumulates in the body over time with frequent repeated exposure. A simple blood test from your doctor can determine your blood levels. The average person should have less than 5 mcg/dL (milligrams per deciliter, a measurement of the amount of a substance in a specific amount of blood).
At elevated levels of 10 to 25 mcg/dL some exposure is occurring. Minimizing the source of the lead exposure is recommended. At 25 to 40 mcg/dL there are moderate risks and you may start showing symptoms of lead poisoning. Medication in the form of a chelating agent is recommend for reducing the levels of lead in your body.
A reading of 40 to 80 is considered seriously elevated, and significant health damage may be occurring, even if there are no symptoms. Seriously elevated levels require medical attention and possible hospitalization.
Symptoms of lead poisoning may include:
Loss of memory and difficulty in concentration (frequently the first symptom seen); fatigue; irritability and aggressiveness; a loss of sexual interest or impotence; high blood pressure; abdominal pain; constipation; joint and muscle pains; pain, tingling, twitching, or tumbness in extremities; headaches; and mood disorders.
There are simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of lead absorption. Immediately wash your hands thoroughly with cold water after shooting and handling any ammunition — especially before eating, drinking or smoking to avoid ingestion. You may also purchase D-Lead or Lead Off wipes, which are like wet hand wipes but remove lead and heavy metals from the skin after participating in shooting.
Use copper coated ammo, or FMJ (full metal jacket), to avoid direct contact with the lead. You can also switch to non-toxic lead-free alternative ammo. However, lead-free and non-toxic ammo is typically more expensive than regular ammunition and may not be available in all calibers.
Wear latex or nitrate gloves when you clean your firearms. This will keep any lead residue off your skin. Clean your firearms in a well-ventilated area when possible. Avoid using your dining room table or eating areas when doing this task. Use the lead-removal wipes after cleaning your firearms as well.
If you are shooting at an indoor range, inquire about their ventilation systems. A well-ventilated range will have a separate “push/pull” ventilation system that delivers fresh air from behind the shooting area and moves air downrange from the firearm towards a HEPA filtered exhaust area. Obviously, an outdoor range will offer the best ventilation. If your local indoor range does not have the proper ventilation system, I would find somewhere else to shoot.
A rubber backstop at the range also helps to minimize exposure. When the lead bullets hit a steel trap, they disperse lead dust into the air. A rubber system, such as chopped-up pieces of old tires, softens the impact and catches the bullets in its layers.
Some ranges demand you to buy their ammunition to use in their range. This may be because they do not have the “push/pull” ventilation system and they require you to purchase their lead-free ammunition. However, they may just be trying to monopolize on the ammunition sales, charging more than average retail prices. Don’t assume that they use lead-free ammo. Always ask about their ventilation system.
Like I said earlier, I am not trying to scare anyone from enjoying the shooting sport. Your average shooter has nothing to worry about. Most shooters who are exposed to the dangers of lead on a regular basis are already aware of the dangers and have their blood levels tested periodically. I am just trying to make sure those who do not know are well-informed.
Just for the record, the range when I am employed, J&J One Stop Gun Shop in Port Charlotte, does have the proper ventilation system in place, and we change our HEPA filters regularly. So please, continue shooting and having a good time. And as always, be safe and respect your range officers!
Jenny Malone grew up in the Charlotte County area and is an NRA-certified pistol instructor and range safety officer. You can talk guns with her at J&J One Stop Gun Shop at 2324 Tamiami Trail, Port Charlotte.