Inexcusable Exposure: Unprotected Workers, Toxic Lead At Gun Range

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Knowledge of lead's toxicity is far from new. We began cutting the heavy metal from gasoline decades ago. We've removed it from house paints. And, as I've reported before, environmentalists have already spent years fighting to get it out of bullets -- a known route of contamination in gun ranges and on hunting grounds.

So, it was discouraging to read in The Seattle Times that workers who recently remodeled an indoor gun range in Bellevue, Wash. were not given any protective gear or instructions on how to avoid exposure to toxic lead dust.

It was also not surprising to read that many subsequently got sick.

Two dozen workers experienced headaches, stomachaches, lost appetite, fatigue, irritability and other symptoms of excess lead exposure during expansion of the firing range at Wade's Eastside Guns, according to the Times.

Ironworker Manny Romo said he experienced constipation, swollen feet, numbness in his hands and difficulty concentrating. Even now, he said, "My thought process is shot."

Workers even carried the neurotoxin home to their families. Romo's wife, 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son all had elevated blood lead. In fact, test results for his son came back even higher than most of the construction workers.

The gun range and one of its contractors acknowledged mistakes but said they didn't believe workers were permanently harmed, reported the Times. State departments of labor, ecology and public health are investigating.

Meanwhile, as I previously reported, a federal investigation released in December adds concern. Researchers found that levels of lead in the bloodstream long-deemed acceptable may be putting military and civilian firing-range workers at risk.

Evidence continues to mount of lead's health harms at ever-smaller exposures, particularly for pregnant women and young children. And while cases of acute poisoning such as those associated with the remodeling of this gun range have generally dropped, chronic low-level exposures are on the rise and may be contributing to higher crime rates and lower test scores.

Gun ranges can contribute to that problem as well.

Lead does not degrade. Rather, the heavy metal accumulates and leaves a lasting legacy. As Scientific American reported, Mark Pokras of Tufts Unviersity told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting over the weekend that 25,000 to 30,000 tons of lead are added to the environment each year by hunting and shooting-range ammunition, fishing-line weights, discarded batteries and electronic waste. Scientific American continued:

Many steps can be taken nationwide to further reduce lead levels. Tougher emissions laws can be imposed. Lead paint, still sold in China, for example, can be banned in that country, or for import by other countries. Lead pipes and old lead paint can be removed. A high tax could be imposed on products containing lead, and lead in ammunition and fishing weights could be replaced with substitutes -- although materials such as tungsten have not performed well in bullets.

Environmental groups are now sponsoring a California bill to ban lead hunting ammunition, expected to be introduced on Friday, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

As the debate in California makes clear, humans aren't the only ones at risk from lead bullets. The Mercury News reported:

"Countless wild animals suffer and die needlessly every year from the continued use of lead ammunition," said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States. "It is put in the environment and stays there. It's toxic, and it's cumulative."