Shooters and Lead: How to Keep it Downrange (and Out of You)

To modern man, lead’s toxicity is no mystery.  Lead poisoning has been a well-documented phenomenon throughout the course of human history and has been used by historians to explain events from the madness of Rome’s Emperors to the deafness of Beethoven to the demise of the California condor.  While these hypotheses are open to debate, one thing about lead is not: exposure to lead can cause severe and long-term damage.  Presently, you can buy protective vests to help prevent acute lead poisoning from short-term exposure to large solid lead particles.   It is however chronic lead exposure that is less understood and this is of particular importance to us shooters.  As you can probably attest to, every range I have been on, and every reloading class I have taken has signs warning me not to eat, drink, smoke, or chew on the range, and to wash my hands before touching around my mouth to reduce my lead exposure levels.

This article has three objectives: to give you a gauge as to how much lead is too much, to explain how lead hurts you, and what you can do if you do get elevated lead levels.

The answer to the first question is the easiest.  There is NO safe threshold level for lead poisoning.  Any exposure can cause harm.  The amount of harm may vary by your size, health and the type and amount of exposure, but don’t think that because you are strong as an ox you can keep melting wheel weights in your unventilated basement because “you feel fine afterward.”

Lead is toxic to multiple organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, and kidneys, as well as the reproductive and nervous systems.  Lead interferes with normal body processes in various ways.    It bonds chemically with a number of different enzymes in the body resulting in changes to these enzymes’ ability to react.  And since one of the elements lead likes to binds to is lead, it dramatically effects your bodies ability to produce iron rich blood. 

In kind, lead often harms the blood-filtering kidneys.  Specifically it can inhibit the kidney from removing urate, a salt derived from uric acid, which can crystallize in the joints and tissues to cause gout.  Lead also seeks out calcium deposited in the bones weakens them.  More disastrously, lead-calcium couples fix the lead in the body so that it takes years for these deposits to be flushed out completely.

Chronic poisoning usually affects multiple body systems so symptoms may be wide in range and many in number leading to all manner of self-induced misdiagnosis   Lead is typically associated however with three main types of systems: gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, and neurological.  Nervous system and muscular symptoms usually result from intense exposure, while gastrointestinal symptoms usually result from chronic exposure over a longer time.  Signs of long-term exposure are short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, depression, nausea, abdominal pain, loss of coordination, and numbness and tingling in the extremities. 

Other symptoms of chronic exposure are sleep problems, fatigue, headaches, stupor, slurred speech, and anemia.  In extreme cases, a person’s skin may change color and acquire a “lead hue,” or blue line along the gum may appear with bluish black “edging” to the teeth.

All of the above is true for both adults and children, however, the mechanism of injury for kids is much more severe and longer lasting than it is for adults.  Lead-based paint is banned in the United States because children have received permanent developmental injuries from lead exposure in paint chips.  When a child is exposed to lead and the body starts to absorb it, lead is deposited in all of the same tissues it would be deposited in adults.  This is exacerbated however by the fact that the brains and neurons of kids up to around age seven are still developing as they learn (called plasticity) while the body is using calcium as an insulator around these nerves.

The body does not distinguish between lead and calcium very well, so lead can be deposited on the nerves as an insulator instead of calcium.  Since the brain is merely a network of nerve cells, nerves rest “on top of each other” and, if properly insulated, transmit signals through the brain much like electrical signals through a computer.  When lead is used as nerve sheathing instead of as the insulator calcium normally plays, “short circuits” can occur wherever two nerves touch.  This has been associated with a lowered IQ, learning disabilities, decreased growth, hyperactive and antisocial behavior and impaired hearing.  I would never dictate to a parent when their child is mentally, physically, or emotionally mature enough to begin to learn about firearms, however, I would urge parents to take the above information in mind when making the decision.

The good news is that, if you think you have symptoms of lead poisoning, your doctor can give you a blood test to find out your blood levels.  The treatment of lead poisoning requires two things: time and chelation.  Chelation therapy involves chemicals that bind to the lead and help the body pass it through as waste.  The problem with Chelation is that it is a harsh chemical treatment that may also leach out much needed minerals like zinc and iron from the body.  It is also a slow process that may, depending on the severity of the poisoning, have to be taken in steps.

The best way to deal with lead poisoning is pretty old fashioned.  Don’t get yourself poisoned.  This means you should take steps to reduce the likelihood that you ingest or absorb lead particulates.  And though is clear to most that you should not smoke, chew, eat, drink, or rub your eyes while on a range, or until you have washed your hands after shooting, you need to remember that it’s not just the lead bullets that can expose you.  Primers can have lead in them, and the muzzle gasses from your firearm also contain microscopic particles that have been melted from the base of the bullet and scraped off by the rifling.  Dust on ranges also contain elevated lead levels, so be careful not to sweep range dust if you can wet mop it. 

Lead exposure is not something to be afraid of: use common sense as always, be informed of the risks and if you think you may have an increased exposure, get a blood test.  I have been casting my own lead bullets, and shooting for years, and my levels are fine.  I attribute this to good range hygiene.

(photo lead paint chips around window courtesy of Malingering)