Lead Bullets' Health Risks May Threaten Gun Range Patrons, Neighbors, Warn Medical Experts

Secondhand Bullets: The Not-So-Obvious Health Risk At The Gun Range

In late November, the city council of South Jordan, Utah, approved construction of a large indoor shooting range despite appeals from local residents and physicians worried about increases in lead exposures and gun violence.

The latter concern, some speculate, could manifest both from the promotion of firing guns as entertainment and from the exposure to toxic lead released by firing leaded ammunition. The heavy metal is known to damage the brain and to cause behavioral problems.

"Last Friday's horror puts an exclamation point and sad face on the whole equation," said Bill Snape of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, referring to the murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

"There's a reason we took lead out of gasoline," added Snape. "There's a reason we took it out of our house paints."

Much like the sale and safety of firearms, the use and toxicity of bullets containing lead had been a hotly contested issue well before Friday's tragic event. Two pending federal bills could limit the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate leaded ammunition, which is widely used and defended by gun groups. Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount of lead's health harms at ever-smaller exposures, particularly for pregnant women and young children.

As The Huffington Post reported in May, the number of children considered at risk of lead poisoning jumped by more than five-fold after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its threshold for the diagnosis.

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that there is no safe level of lead exposure. And even though a child may never pick up a gun, lead particles from indoor and outdoor gun ranges, such as the one proposed in South Jordan, could still find their way into kids' bodies.

"You're gonna have a steady misting of the immediate neighborhood with lead," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, who has spoken out in opposition of the new South Jordan business. "And any person who uses the range will carry a little bit of lead home to whoever they live with."

Proponents of the range -- Utah's 26th, according to the National Rifle Association's website -- argue that only "minute amounts of lead" will escape the facility, and that the risks are mostly confined to people inside the gun range.

While a child's developing brain is of primary concern, a range of other health risks to people of all ages have been attributed to lead, noted Moench.

A study published in December by the National Research Council concluded that levels of lead in the bloodstream long-deemed acceptable by the federal government may be putting military and civilian firing-range workers at risk of kidney, heart, brain, reproductive and neurological disorders.

Lisa Brosseau of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, a co-author on the report, added that while the adult brain is mostly developed, it can still sustain ongoing damage.

"Lead collects in anyone, regardless of age," she said.

Workers and customers of a shooting range could inhale, ingest or absorb lead while loading ammunition, shooting, retrieving spent bullets and cleaning guns. Good ventilation and frequent cleaning help minimize these exposures, said Brosseau, and washing hands and changing shoes and clothes reduce the risk of taking particulate lead home.

Brosseau's first recommendation, however, is "fixing the thing at its source: the ammunition itself." That would mean replacing lead bullets with alternatives such as ammunition made of copper, as environmental advocates have been urging.

Pending House and Senate bills, however, would exempt lead bullets from regulation by the EPA. Much of the attention the bills are receiving revolves around the environmental and public health risks posed by hunters who use lead bullets.

Since lead is neither biodegradable nor combustible, environmental advocates argue, it remains and accumulates in the environment, where it can settle into the soil or work its way up the food chain and poison wildlife. Similar concerns surround outdoor firing ranges.

Then there are the risks to those who eat animals shot by hunters. "When a bullet hits a bird or elk or deer, it explodes and leaves lead inside for people to consume," Snape said.

Snape highlights the long-standing opposition to eliminating leaded ammunition by a Newtown-based gun group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, headquartered just three miles from the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

While the NSSF did not respond to an interview request, the group's senior vice president, Larry Keane, told The Washington Times in September that the "threat to ban use of traditional ammunition without sound science is the most significant threat facing the firearms and ammunitions industries today."

He added that it would also create "massive supply shortages for consumers."

"As happens so many times with toxins including tobacco, it's often only decades after we really understand medically what they do to people that we pass appropriate regulations," said Moench. "The battle of trying to get lead eliminated from gasoline went on for decades."

After lead began to be phased out of fuel in 1976, research suggests that children's IQs rose an average of six points.

"Those points can be a game-changer, a career-changer," Moench said. "And this is not just an issue of intellectual capacity, it's also an issue of behavioral control and modification."

Clarification: Language has been changed to indicate that lead had not been completely removed from gasoline as of 1976, but rather its gradual removal from gasoline began in 1976.

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