Lead exposure and shooters – is it a concern?

Like any risk or hazard tough – we need to impartially asses the hazard and evaluate what, if anything needs to be done.

In short, for ranges, there are already controls in place at both local and national levels and outdoor ranges pose little real risk – however – what do we need to be aware of in a workplace situation?

High numbers?

According to Dr Russell, in the five years between 2014 and 2018, 88 firearms-related lead poisonings were reported.​*​​1​ We can find a similar report from 2013 from Charlotte Reynolds in the NZ Herald​2​ – though here we see where a significant amount of the reports come from – Central Shooters, which used to run in the basement area of the YMCA Auckland building – was closed due to the unsafe exposure levels the indoor club was exposing it’s members too.

I have met some of these members, who personally had suffered from lead poisoning – and reports suggest that the club had no ventilation systems running.​†​ While still sad and unacceptable – it’s no surprise then that the shooters had unsafe levels of exposure.

What is the method of exposure though? And how much of a concern is it? It’s important to understand the risk fuller, rather than use potential risk to try and justify a whole raft of new legislation and law.

Sources of lead

Lead exposure, is, unsurprisingly, the result of being exposed to lead. So, in the content of firearms and shooting – how does this happen?

Rifles and pistols shoot projectiles (also known as ‘bullets’) are often made of a lead core. Shotguns shoot shot – often lead shot.

Projectiles

While newer designs are changing to solid copper and other materials​3​ it is fair to say that the majority of projectiles are still using a lead material.

It’s also important to understand, that, in addition to the shape (and function) of projectile design – there is a variety of jacketing methods – from an un-jacketed design which is essentially just lead, through to a full metal jacket which totally encapsulates the lead core in an outer jacket of copper. The design of projectiles can be further separated in a pistol style (and sized) projectile and the rifle projectiles.

Most modern factory ammunition (and the projectiles used in them) are of a jacketed design – either mostly jacketed or fully jacketed. For reloaders (those manufacturing their own ammunition) the vast majority of rifles shooters are using jacketed designs, with some specialist reloaders (sub-sonic, black powder) using exposed lead. This is a similar situation for pistol reloaders. The use of jacketed projectiles has shown up to an 89% reduction in blood lead levels in exposed individuals.​4​

You will find more unjacketed, lead projectiles in two places – those casting their own projectiles​‡​ for reloading use, and 22LR shooters. Certainly – there is a valid concern regarding people melting down and casting lead in regards to exposure – however – it is important to note, that this is, in reality, a small, small sub-section of shooters.

22LR ammunition

22 rimfire​§​ ammunition often comes in an unjacketed lead-exposed format. However, a lot of these projectiles are covered in a waxy lubricant, that, while maybe not the primary intention of, helps reduce the amount of lead dust that is released into the air.

There are also semi-jacketed, fully jacketed and solid core options becoming available now as well.

Shotgun Ammunition

Shotgun ammunition was traditionally made with lead shot, however, environmental concerns have caused many international Clubs and Councils, States and other governing bodies to require the use of steel shot instead. This is a trend that has also occurred in New Zealand. For Duck hunting, lead shot is banned in areas within 200 meters of a water source – so is mainly restricted to upland (dry-land) hunting.​5​

This ban is also starting to occur through more and more clay target shooting clubs.​6​ Its not inconceivable, therefore, that in the near future, lead will be a total non-issue for shotgun club shooting.

Primers

One of the main concerns in regards to lead exposure comes from the primer. The bullet primer is about 35% lead styphnate and lead dioxide (also known as lead peroxide). When a shooter fires a bullet, lead particles and fumes originating from the primer discharge at high pressures from the gun barrel, very close to the shooter.​7​ It’s actually likely that the primer discharge is of more concern to the shooter’s health than the projectile itself. However, all of this is related to exposure levels – which for most, non-competition, outdoors shooters, is not a concern.​8​

Lead Delivery Methods

Airborne particles

The primary method of lead exposure for shooters is via the respiratory system – inhalation of lead particles in the air. However, this only really seems to be a concern for indoor ranges – as most outdoor ranges will have enough airflow, or more especially, won’t trap the particles enough for the shooter to inhale any significant amount.​9​ Simply utilising an outdoor shooting range (which the vast majority of shooting ranges in New Zealand are) mitigates the risk.

If you are in an indoor facility – there are definitely additional considerations – which we cover below.

Hand to mouth transfer

The additional mode of transfer of lead is directly from lead on the hands and fingers to the mouth. This primarily results of the consumption of food or drink without the adequate washing of hands after handling ammunition. This risk is easily mitigated through proper hygiene before eating. Namely – washing hands. While this is good practice at all times – the differentiation needs to be made between someone at a shooting range or competition, potentially shooting upwards of 100 rounds per day, and someone shooting a few shots off.

Indoors / Outdoors

As has previously mentioned several times, the likelihood of exposure increases exponentially when in an inside range with limited, or recycled air. Multiple papers and studies have been done on the subject​4,9,10​ as well as multiple best practice documents for both indoors and outdoors ranges.​9–13​

For most workplace users, therefore – ‘range’ contamination is a low area of concern. However, if the workplace was to set up or run a range, then they would need to follow and maintain clearly established best practices to reduce the amount of airborne lead dust particles. Though not overly relevant to user lead exposure, consideration would also need to then be given to discharge issues.

Summary & Suggestions

For workplace firearms users (including pest controllers), lead exposure is not likely to be of much concern. airborne particles are unlikely to gather in significant numbers in the environments firearms are normally being used in. In addition, simple, and common hygiene standards (washing hands before eating) also reduce any secondary exposure concerns. If a workplace is concerned about potential lead levels though, a regular blood test to set a baseline and monitor it are easily put in place. if the levels are then shown to not be of concern, the tests can be reduced or stopped altogether.

Rules for providing a safe workplace are already clearly established. Evaluate the risk to your workers and manage it.


  1. ​*​
    Source not supplied. ACC figures maybe?
  2. ​†​
    It turns out they did, but poor trap design and lack of washing facilities caused a build up of lead and hand to mouth transfer.
  3. ​‡​
    Making them with a lead smelter at home
  4. ​§​
    A small, rimfire cartridge popular with pest and target shooters
  1. 1.
    Tougher rules needed to prevent lead poisoning of shooters: researcher. New Zealand Doctor. https://www.nzdoctor.co.nz/article/undoctored/tougher-rules-needed-prevent-lead-poisoning-shooters-researcher.
  2. 2.
    Guns involved in 24 lead poisoning cases. NZ Herald. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10859419. Published 2013. Accessed 2020.
  3. 3.
    Tipped TSSC Rifle Bullets. Barnes. https://www.barnesbullets.com/bullets/ttsx/. Accessed 2020.
  4. 4.
    Health Service Nelson P. Health Advice for Indoor Shooters. https://www.nmdhb.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/Health-Advice-for-Indoor-Shooters.pdf.
  5. 5.
    12 Gauge Hunting Ammunition  Fish & Game New Zealand. Fish & Game. https://fishandgame.org.nz/game-bird-hunting-in-new-zealand/getting-started/ammunition/.
  6. 6.
  7. 7.
    Ball A, Gulson B, Filippelli G, Mielke HW, Laidlaw MAS. People who shoot risk unhealthy levels of lead exposure. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/people-who-shoot-risk-unhealthy-levels-of-lead-exposure-68220.
  8. 8.
    Sahai D, Agency for Health Protection O, Promotion. Lead Exposures among Recreational Shooters: Rapid Evidence Review.; 2015. http://www.deslibris.ca/ID/244732.
  9. 9.
    Laidlaw MAS, Filippelli G, Mielke H, Gulson B, Ball AS. Lead exposure at firing ranges — a review. Environmental Health. 2017;16. doi:10.1186/s12940-017-0246-0
  10. 10.
  11. 11.
    States Environmental Protection Agency U. Best Management Practices for Lead at Outdoor Shooting Ranges.; 2005.
  12. 12.
    Jo Cavanagh D. Food Safety & Animal Welfare Code of Practice for Clay Target Shooting Ranges. https://www.nzclaytarget.org.nz/assets/files/blog/files//51b38058-d59c-41ff-8ef3-2a94d22657bb.pdf.
  13. 13.