LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 13 Number 4, June 2013, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editorial Team: Elizabeth O’Brien, Zac Gethin-Damon, Hitesh Lohani, Shristi Lohani and David Ratcliffe

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Pathways for exposure to lead while using and handling guns and ammunition

By Elizabeth O’Brien, with additional research by Anne Roberts

According to Wikipedia (2011):

An air gun (also air rifle or air pistol) is a rifle, pistol , or shotgun that fires projectiles by means of compressed air or other gas , in contrast to a firearm, which burns a propellant. Most air guns use metallic projectiles as ammunition. Air guns that only use plastic projectiles are classified as airsoft guns

The most popular ammunition used in rifled air guns is the lead diabolo pellet. This waisted projectile is hollowed at the base and available in a variety of head styles.

A  .177 caliber "Wadcutter" pellet next to a stick of chewing gum.A .177 caliber "Wadcutter" pellet next to
a stick of chewing gum. (Wikipedia, 2011)

A forensic scientist who did his training in Tasmania, Dr Carl Hughes, has advised me (2010) that air rifle pellets used in Tasmania (and the rest of Australia) in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s would have been almost entirely lead.

I have also advised numerous weapons instructors and police (who are required to practise shooting) about the pathways of exposure to lead while firing guns. Anne Roberts has put together the following information on that topic.

The following information is from ‘RISKS OF LEAD POISONING IN FIREARMS INSTRUCTORS AND THEIR STUDENTS’ (Gregory, 1990)

The article is about indoor shooting ranges, but the author has agreed that the information also applies to shooting outdoors (not simply in outdoor shooting ranges, which are partially enclosed), especially when the air is still.

‘Lead can enter the body by breathing it in as a dust or vapor, by ingesting it, and to a lesser extend, by absorption through the skin. On the shooting range it tends to enter via all three routes. Every time you discharge a handgun a spray of lead erupts into the air around you. If you are shooting cast lead bullets, part of this lead is in the form of microscopic particles sheared from the bullet as it passes down the barrel. Down range, the bullet impacting on the armor plate emits a spray of fine lead particles. More importantly, the chemical commonly used in primers is lead styphnate, and detonating the primer discharges a cloud of molecular lead compounds. So the air on a shooting range -- even an extremely well ventilated range -- tends to contain a lot of lead, both as dust, and as gas. It settles in large amounts on the floor, and on other horizontal surfaces as well. Even if the range passes OSHA standards for airborne lead contamination (which many don't), you will still often find yourself standing in a cloud of lead filled gun smoke as the air currents eddy around you. All the while you are breathing in lead, about 30-50% of which will dissolve from your lungs into your bloodstream. If you have any doubts about this, just blow your nose when you leave the range after a lengthy shooting session. That black stuff in the mucous is the residue of gun smoke, and it contains a lot of lead.’

The powder residue you get all over your hands also contains a lot of lead. Left on your hands, some of this can actually be absorbed directly through your skin. More importantly, if you eat with this residue still on your hands, you will contaminate your food with a significant amount of lead. You can also contaminate your food with residue from around your mouth, particularly if you have a mustache. Your breathing concentrates lead around your nose and upper lip, and a mustache will act as a filter to trap the particles and gases. Your sandwich or pizza will then carry those particles into your mouth. This is particularly important to realize, because although only about 10% of ingested elemental lead is absorbed, nearly 100% of ingested lead salts -- formed when you ignite the primer -- are absorbed. So ingestion is a very efficient way to absorb certain forms of lead.

Handling fired brass can result in the same problem. The powder residue on fired brass also contains a lot of chemical and particulate lead. The author knows of one individual who didn't spend much time on the range, but who regularly sorted brass while munching snacks, and gave himself serious lead poisoning in the process.

If you have small children, it is also important to realize that you can carry lead residue home and contaminate your living quarters and car. You will get the dust on your shoes, on your clothes, on your shooting gear, and in your hair. It will then be tracked into and settle on the floor of your home. Children, of course, live on the floor and put everything into their mouths. And as we noted before, they are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning. In the course of the research for this article, the author was told by a local health official of a case where the children of one particular family were found to have elevated blood levels of lead, and the family car was so badly contaminated (from the family's clothing) that it simply had to be gotten rid of.

The exposure to lead on firing ranges (military or civilian) occurs as soon as a shooter pulls the trigger on a firearm. This action causes the primer of the cartridge in the weapon's chamber to explode, which - in turn - ignites the main powder charge. At this point, a respirable cloud of lead particulates is expelled from the cartridge primer into the air, with minute particles of lead dust spraying the shooter's hands, face, and clothing.

With exposed lead types of projectiles, minute lead particles also shear off from them as the projectile travels through the barrel of the weapon. In jacketed ammunition with exposed lead bases, minute particles are shed from the small exposed base area.

When the projectile leaves the barrel, a second cloud of contaminants, in the form of the muzzle blast, bursts into the air. These contaminants contain particles of lead and other chemicals from the projectile and the residue of unburnt powder and burnt powder gases. Then, as the bullet travels through the air and strikes the impact area, another contaminated cloud rises if the projectile strikes a solid object causing it to break up, releasing small particles of lead dust into the air.

When shooters inhale these various clouds of contaminants, lead particles travel directly into their lungs and are quickly absorbed from there into the bloodstream. The blood then transfers this inhaled lead into soft body tissue and bone. Heat from smoking, sweating, or physical activity accelerates this process.

Lead can also settle on the skin and hair, and in turn, be absorbed through the pores of the skin. If lead particles reach the mouth, they can be ingested directly into the digestive system.

Exposure increases when it is time for the individual to clean-up, because handling empty casings can result in lead being transferred to the skin, or to clothing and other garments from where it will eventually find its way into the body. The actual cleaning process for the weapon also removes much of the remaining lead in the barrel and lead particulates from other parts of the weapon and transfers it to the cleaner's hands. Oils and solvents used to clean and lubricate weapons cause the natural oils in the skin to evaporate, leaving dry skin and open pores through which the lead can more easily pass.


 Anonymous Avid Shooter (2006) Aiming for Lower Lead Exposure: Shooting and Exposure to Lead; Effects of Lead on the Body; reducing lead exposure when cleaning guns, Uploaded onto Cornered Cat website by Kathy Jackson, http://www.corneredcat.com/Safety/lead.aspx

Gregory, Anthony M. (1990) RISKS OF LEAD POISONING IN FIREARMS INSTRUCTORS AND THEIR STUDENTS, Copyright 1990 by THE ASLET JOURNAL, March/April 1990 Volume 4 Issue 2. Web-published by Environmental Health & Safety, The University of Texas at Austin. Modified 25th July 2003, http://www.utexas.edu/safety/ehs/msds/lead.html

Hughes, Carl (2010) pers. Comm.. by telephone, 9th June 2010.

Jones, Bruce L., (1999) (Program Manager - Infantry Weapons, Marine Corps Logistics Base, Multi-Commodity Maintenance Center, Engineering Department, Barstow, California), Engineering Study: Reducing Lead Contamination and Exposure on Military Firing Ranges Through the Practical Application of Ballistic Containment Systems (FORTH EDITION), Department of the Navy, United States Marine Corps, 28th September 1999,%20http:/www.supertrap.com/ST_Downloads_files/Pb5-stdy.pdf

Wikipedia (2011) Air gun article including Ammunition: Pellet, last modified 16th February 2011, accessed 23rd February 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_gun

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