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Conscientious shooters take measures to protect themselves when at the range. They follow range safety rules, wear proper hearing and eye protection, and handle their weapons responsibly. However, many shooters are unaware of the dangers of lead exposure

Lead is a harmful substance that can have devastating effects. Whether you shoot once a year, once a month, or every day, reducing your lead exposure is important for long-term health. Here are some basic facts about lead exposure every shooter should know, plus some easy ways to minimize your exposure and keep you safe and healthy.

The Hazards of Lead Exposure

Lead poisoning is a serious issue. Lead negatively affects every single organ in the human body. High blood lead levels (BLL) can cause headaches, high blood pressure, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, and infertility.

Lead also accumulates in the body. Once it enters the body, it doesn’t leave. If you are a regular or high-volume shooter, you should have a doctor regularly check your BLL with a simple test. Since high levels can lead to a myriad of health problems, this is something you want to stay on top of in order to receive proper treatment should problems arise. 

Lead Exposure in Children

Lead is even more dangerous for young children. Adults only absorb about 20 percent of the lead they ingest. However, children absorb up to 70 percent

Children are also more likely to put their hands in their mouths and less likely to properly wash those hands. This can rapidly increase the amount of lead that makes it into their small, developing bodies. 

Children with high BLLs can experience hearing problems, learning difficulties, growth issues, increased attention related behaviors, and delayed puberty.

Pregnancy and Lead Exposure

Lead exposure is also harmful to developing babies. When the mother is exposed to lead, it crosses the placenta, exposing the fetus as well as the mother. Fetal lead exposure can adversely affect birth weight, head circumference, and brain development. 

Increased BLLs during pregnancy also increase the chances of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, pregnancy hypertension, and premature delivery. Even if a pregnant mother isn’t present at the shooting range, her and her developing baby can be exposed to lead that has settled on other shooters, putting the lives of both mother and baby at risk.

Sources of Lead Exposure

Shooters are exposed to lead in several ways.  

Ammunition

Most projectiles contain lead. Exposure levels are increased if you shoot bullets that do not have copper jackets. Tiny bits of lead break off from the projectile as it passes through the gun barrel. This is due to small bore imperfections and results in lead dust and residue.

Large amounts of lead are also present in the cartridge primer (approximately 35 percent lead styphnate and lead peroxide). When the primer ignites, lead dust and fumes are ejected from the muzzle at extremely high pressures (18,000–20,000 psi).

Not only do shooters (and others in the area) inhale these tiny lead particulates, dust and debris also settle on skin, clothes, shoes, hair, and other surfaces. The lead can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally ingested.

Changing Targets

At outdoor shooting ranges, the lead dust expelled during shooting settles into the soil. When changing out your targets, lead that has accumulated in the soil can attach itself to you shoes. Once on your shoes, it can travel back home with you and settle on floors and other surfaces in your home. Small amounts of lead will also be present on used targets. 

Picking Up Brass

Responsible shooters clean up after themselves. If you walk around picking up spent brass after you shoot, the lead residue on those empty casings gets on your hands. If you scoop that lead-covered brass into your packets or hat, you increase the amount of lead dust on your clothing as well. 

Cleaning Your Firearm

After shooting, your firearm is covered in lead dust and residue. Every time you handle that weapon, you get a small amount of lead on your hands. This is one reason it is important to clean your firearm after every trip to the range. 

However, you are also exposed to lead when you clean your firearm. The lead that accumulates inside the weapon becomes exposed to the air during cleaning and can contaminate work surfaces and tools. 

Ways to Reduce Exposure to Lead

The best way to prevent excessive lead exposure is to avoid shooting and ranges altogether. However, that doesn’t sound like much fun. Here are some ways to minimize lead exposure and still enjoy shooting.

Choose Ammunition with Lead-Free Primers

The primer is a primary source of airborne lead on the shooting range.

Most modern primers use compounds containing lead styphnate or lead peroxide. Lead-free primers contain compounds based on diazol compounds. These primers contain no heavy metals and prevent lead exposure at the firing point.

Choose Ammunition with Fully Enclosed Base Projectiles

Although similar to the legendary FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) projectile, bullets with a Fully Enclosed Base (FEB) differ in one important aspect. FMJ bullets leave a small amount of lead exposed at the base of the projectile. FEB bullets have a lead core completely encased in jacket material. 

With the FEB design, there is zero chance of hot gases from the burning propellant coming in contact with the lead core. This eliminates the chance of lead vaporization at the bullet base upon powder ignition.

Choose All-Copper Bullets

Many companies developed their own all-copper projectiles for increased performance. Some benefits of all-copper bullets include maximum weight retention, deeper penetration, and faster velocities. However, all-copper bullets offer another benefit - zero lead exposure from the projectile. 

No Eating or Drinking at the Range

Because lead can enter the body through accidental ingestion, it is a smart idea to leave your snacks, coffee, and water bottles at home. 

Wash Your Hands

Because your hands are in contact with your firearm during shooting, they are prone to lead exposure. It is important to wash your hands immediately after shooting. Use cold water (hot water opens your pores, allowing your skin to readily absorb the lead on your hands) and a quality de-lead soap.

Wear Shooting Gloves

Not only do shooting gloves help you keep a solid grip on your weapon, they also cover your hands, minimizing lead absorption through the skin.

We love the Core Technical Gloves from Magpul. They are lightweight, comfy, and don’t limit dexterity. 

Take A Shower

Lead also settles on your face, neck, and hair when you shoot. Be sure to shower as soon after shooting as possible, taking extra care in washing your hair and any skin exposed during shooting. Use warm or room temperature water for washing to help prevent lead from entering the body through open pores. Save the hot shower for another day. 

Choose a Well-Ventilated Shooting Range

If possible, do your shooting at an outdoor range. You can’t get better ventilation than the great outdoors. However, ventilation is worse at covered outdoor ranges, which can increase shooter lead exposure. 

If you must shoot at an indoor range, choose one that is well-maintained and has proper ventilation. Air at an indoor range should move from behind the shooter and head downrange, taking lead vapor with it. Stay far away from ranges that have a constant cloud of gun smoke hanging in the air. 

Do Your Laundry

Not only do small lead particles settle on your skin, it also gathers on your clothing. Be sure to wash your range clothes as soon as you get home. If at all possible, remove your lead-contaminated clothing immediately after you’re done shooting. Transport those clothes home in a plastic bag and dump them directly into your washing machine. 

Cleaning Your Firearm

The main goal of cleaning your firearm is to remove the dirt and residue that accumulates when your shoot. That dirt and residue contains large amounts of lead. Cleaning your weapon can expose you to this potentially harmful metal. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce lead exposure when you clean your guns.

  • Wear gloves to protect your skin from lead, heavy metals, and harsh cleaning solvents. 
  • Cover your work area with disposable paper that can be thrown away when you finish. 
  • Place paper in a sealed trash bag and dispose immediately. 
  • Wash your hands and arms with cool water and de-lead soap after cleaning your weapon.

Summing It Up

Exposure to dangerous lead can threaten our health and negatively affect shooting enjoyment. Just like we follow proper gun safety to prevent injury while shooting, we should take measures to limit our lead exposure to prevent serious health problems. Learning proper hygiene and safe shooting practices help gun owners control their exposure to this toxic metal. 

Follow the simple tips in this article, and it will help you stay healthy so you can enjoy shooting for many years to come.