The Lead Issue Will Continue Dogging Us

This study on lead exposure, which was highlighted by Bloomberg’s propaganda mouthpiece “The Trace,” is more of a compilation than original work, but I have little doubt that people who frequent indoor shooting ranges have higher blood lead levels than people who don’t. Just because these studies are being pushed by people who would love to shut down every shooting range in the country doesn’t mean the issue is fake. Here are the facts we face:

  • There are no good alternatives for lead in bullets. There are other metals with similar properties, but they are considerably more scarce. It probably wouldn’t take the shooting community long to shoot up, for instance, all the bismuth that can be dug out of the earth, assuming we could even afford it.
  • Bullets with steel cores, and cores made up of other less malleable but more common metals are problematic because they can be classified as armor piercing under the law. Additionally, they will tend to tear up range equipment more readily than softer lead core bullets. Typically lead free bullets are made of copper and copper alloys, but copper is more expensive and doesn’t perform as well as lead.
  • There is currently no reliable alternative to lead styphnate and lead azide in primers. Well, there is one: good old mercury fulminate and potassium chlorate. But obviously mercury isn’t any better regarded for its environmental friendliness than lead, and these types of primers are corrosive. There have been advances in Non-Toxic (NT) primers, and they are getting better. The typical NT primers use Diazodinitrophenol (DDNP) instead of lead styphnate or lead azide. The big issue with NT primers has been shelf stability and reliability.

Atomic lead is not nearly as dangerous as compounds of lead. The byproducts of primer combustion is vaporized atomic lead, and lead oxide. Lead oxide is readily absorbed by the human body and is mobile in soils. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done a study to determine whether increases in blood lead levels or range contamination was primarily from primer byproducts, or from atomic lead found in bullets. I’d wager that most, and probably the vast majority of the lead exposure is coming from the primers. I think in the future it will be important to know because lead in primers is probably a solvable problem.  The military is doing the bulk of the work trying to develop and study the performance of lead-free primers, and I expect in a few decades, there’s a good chance we’ll all be doing most of our shooting with NT primers, even if carry ammo still uses lead-based primers. The problem of elemental lead in bullets I believe can be successfully managed with good range practices. I suspect the primers are actually the bigger health and environmental issue.

34 thoughts on “The Lead Issue Will Continue Dogging Us”

  1. The lead issue always concerns me, both because of its health issues, and because its an issue that could easily sink us. It doesn’t help that there are no good alternatives.

  2. Force the anti-gunners to eat their own complaints by permitting iron bullets to replace lead bullets.

    What better way to get rid of the B.S. “armor piercing” laws than to turn the Lefties own environmental concerns against them?

    The type of ammunition which lead is most critical for is shotguns, whether we are talking birdshot or buckshot. And the Lefties have already inflicted maximum damage there.

    1. Bullets replacing lead with iron would be less dense, and would have a lower ballistic coefficient. Also, an awful lot of expensive engineering and manufacturing techniques would need to go into expanding bullets for hunting and self-defense. It might be OK if all we had to think about were military-like scenarios, but for general sporting purposes, we’d have one hell of a challenge.

  3. Add to everything, that I don’t believe the medical/scientific community has as good a handle on what lead levels in the blood are a health hazard, as they pretend to have. Certainly for very high levels the dangers are well known, but for more moderate levels, I have my doubts.

    When I attended the NRA Meetings in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, they were doing free, on-the-spot blood tests for lead levels. I had been casting and handling thousands of bullets a year, but, while I forget the numbers, my blood lead level was lower than that of the average man-on-the-street in the region at the time. FWIW, I think that supports Sebastian’s contention that atomic lead (or metallic lead) is nowhere near the hazard/culprit that various forms of chemical lead (compounds) are for contributing to blood lead levels.

    At that time the regional culprit contributing to blood lead levels was leaded gasoline and auto exhausts. When the federal government unilaterally (and ahead of schedule, as I recall) banned leaded gasoline, the average regional blood lead levels plummeted. That was such an environmental success that when I later learned of it, it amazed me that it was not being written in the sky by sky-writers, for the environmental movement.

    Later I would do a good deal of work for a non-sporting-related industry that used tons of lead in its products. It was at that time I learned that the blood lead levels I had tested years before, now would have gotten me banned from the floor of the plant until they came down and the cause identified; and remember that those earlier levels had been slightly lower than those of the man-on-the-street.

    That was when I really started wondering why the tremendous success of the leaded gasoline ban was never more broadly crowed about. The only thing that I can imagine is, that the general health benefits that were predicted and promised to accompany the ban on leaded gasoline, in fact had never materialized; which made me wonder how much of a handle they really have on the health effects of various moderate lead levels in the blood.

    Anyone who can illuminate (or contradict) what I’m saying, with actual statistics from over the years, is certainly invited to do so.

    1. Add to everything, that I don’t believe the medical/scientific community has as good a handle on what lead levels in the blood are a health hazard, as they pretend to have. Certainly for very high levels the dangers are well known, but for more moderate levels, I have my doubts.

      Me too. But I expect the action level to get lower as other sources of lead use get eliminated. Eventually shooters might be walking around with lead levels lower than an urban dweller in the era of leaded gasoline, but since the population baseline will be a lot lower — panic!

      1. My observations above are very generalized, and despite my interest, I have never attempted a more formal “study” of available data from over the years. But it seems to me this is one example where an environmental “success” can be challenged with, “what demonstrable health benefits resulted?” And, “what was promised versus what actually materialized?

        I can recall that it was at least suggested that the lack of achievement in inner city schools was partially due to the higher average lead levels in the children’s blood due to air pollution. In the roughly 35 years since leaded gasoline was banned, I have never heard that inner city student achievement was now soaring — or even improving.

        Things like that can be clouded by, if little kids are eating lead paint chips and getting monstrously high lead levels, and actual lead poisoning, obviously ending that is going to bring measurable improvements. But again it seems that correlation of health effects with what I am calling “moderate” levels (TBD) remains largely unknown, and in the example of mental development, nearly impossible to separate from other factors.

        1. It’s been argued that the downslope of violent crime follows the reduction and elimination in leaded gasoline worldwide. FWIW.

    2. The only thing that I can imagine is, that the general health benefits that were predicted and promised to accompany the ban on leaded gasoline, in fact had never materialized; which made me wonder how much of a handle they really have on the health effects of various moderate lead levels in the blood.

      There’s a theory (more of a hypothesis, really) that the dramatic drop in violence between the 1980s to the late 1990s was due to lower blood lead levels in the general population. The idea is that high blood lead levels caused anti-social tendencies. Problem is, there are a lot of other factors that might be in play, and no one to my knowledge has ever done a study conclusively linking high blood levels with antisocial personality disorders.

  4. You wrote: “I have little doubt that people who frequent indoor shooting ranges have higher blood lead levels than people who don’t.” However, that does not need to be true for you. PROPER HYGIENE makes all the difference. You can shoot regularly at an indoor range, even work full-time in an indoor range, and REDUCE your blood lead levels. No need to take shortcuts with your personal health.

    -Do not take food or beverage into your range lane. (Not even bottled water.)
    -Do not touch your face while you are in the range.
    -Wash your face, neck, hands and arms immediately when you walk out of the range.
    -Then change your shirt.

    1. You must not shoot competition much. Washing hands between stages is not practical, nor is not drinking water during a 12-stage match in 100-degree Alabama heat.

      I figure there are a lot of things that will kill me a lot sooner than lead poisoning. So, I don’t worry too much about it.

    2. Our indoor range stocks their bathrooms with de-leading hand soap, and STRONGLY encourages (but doesn’t require) all patrons to wash up after shooting.

    3. For awhile I shot with a small ASSRA group on an indoor range at an ancient National Guard Armory. It’s ventilation was inadequate, as in non-existent. Very shortly later it was closed completely, by the NG, and my understanding was it was because actual tests by the NG detected high concentrations of lead in the air. The accumulation of powder fumes was noticeable but not unpleasant in any sensory sense. I did wonder how it had functioned back in the black powder days, which I was pretty sure it dated back to. And, mercuric primers.

  5. Yes, elemental (atomic, metallic, etc.) lead is MUCH less dangerous than ionized (chemical, compounded, etc.) lead. It’s actually pretty inert, all things considered.

    Unlike mercury, which is highly toxic in EITHER its elemental or ionized states.

    Personally, I have a hard time getting excited about this, even from an environmental standpoint. Elemental lead, in addition to being relatively inert, is mined from the ground. There are tens of millions of tons of it still out there, and it’s all been sitting there for millions of years.

    To hear the environmentalists and EPA talk about how dangerous lead bullets are (even when jacketed in copper), all that unmined ore in the ground must be an immediate and existential threat to all life on Earth (ZOMGPANIC!!!!).

    Sorry to burst that lead balloon, but I don’t see any effort to strip-mine the country, remove all the lead ore, and blast it all to the moon, do I?

    1. I would really like to see a more serious study, as I alluded to above, to determine as exactly as possible at what blood lead levels various human health impacts occur — including “no impact at all.”

      You are absolutely correct about natural lead in the environment, but, I believe there are areas where naturally occurring lead levels in ground water exceed what is deemed safe for human consumption or use; but the bottom line of that comes back to, what lead levels in the blood will occur, and what health hazards are known to be associated with those levels?

      Something I’ve wondered about for awhile is, that in Bucks County, one of the county parks is at “Lake Galena.” The name of the lake comes from, there used to be lead mines there, where “galena” (lead ore) was mined. So, what levels of lead are in the lake and ground water? And if they are low, why are they low when we know that there was enough lead ore in the ground at one time to be mined labor-intensively? Wouldn’t you expect the lead level to be worse for that scenario than from a bucketful of fishing sinkers on the bottom and maybe some shot and bullets on the drainage?

      There have been ranges around the country where range lead did contribute to increased lead levels in the ground water; but to me the real question remains, were those levels realistic threats to human health, or are the safety standards outlandishly conservative?

      It has occurred to me that the lead-in-water problems in Flint, Michigan, should provide some additional empirical evidence regarding the effects of lead with a large population, but, that situation has become so politicized it is doubtful any reliable health data will be acquired. I am genuinely sympathetic to the people of Flint, but I am also sure every ingrown toenail will be blamed on the water.

    2. Yep. Elemental lead is ridiculously stable. There’s a reason it’s used in batteries and anodizing where it’s immersed in sulfuric acid. We’ve also dug up roman lead foundries where the lead basically stayed put after 2000 years.

  6. I’ve been shooting in hunting, competition, military and practice (a LOT of practice!) for over a half a century.

    A lot of that shooting has included exposed-lead bullets (.22 & .45 especially) and often during indoors competition (gallery rifle shooting in the ’60s & ’70s).

    So far, I’m still alive. I show no sign of lead poisoning … which was more likely during my tour as an Infantry Platoon Sgt in ’69-’70.

    I guess I’m just lucky.

    1. Consider that some people have carried lead bullets around in their bodies for years, with no apparent ill effects from the lead. My mother had an acute appendicitis attack roughly 60 years ago, and when they removed the appendix, there was a #6 shot in it, apparently from one of the rabbits or pheasants or squirrels we ate. But, there were no apparent effects from the lead, per se, and she lived roughly another 50 years.

      A family friend had five or six ChiCom subgun bullets clustered around his heart from the Korean War (the Chinese executed POWs, but he didn’t die.) He eventually died moderately young from heart problems, but it wasn’t from the lead in the bullets. (Those were the days before open heart surgery was common.)

  7. NSSF: ‘New’ Report on Lead Exposure at Shooting Ranges Doesn’t Have New Data

    A new report making some headlines over the last few days recommends banning lead ammunition in response to blood lead levels in those who shoot at indoor and outdoor ranges.

    This report, published in the journal, Environmental Health, doesn’t add anything new in terms of science, rather it is a literature review of existing studies. While literature reviews certainly hold value when done correctly, the news reports about the report seldom note that no new information is being presented here.

    What is being presented is an overview of the results from 36 studies. Based on the results of these studies, the authors argue that blood lead levels of shooters, both occupational and recreational, are too high and that more should be done to minimize lead exposure. The authors also declare, without providing evidence, that the U.S. government thresholds for blood lead levels are too high and should be lowered. That’s simply an opinion unsupported by scientific evidence.

    However, looking at these “36 articles,” it becomes clear that nearly all (83%) of the studies analyzed are either studies of shooters in other countries, or studies that are more than 10 years old. Only 6 are U.S.-based studies conducted within the past decade.

    It’s hard to believe that the stringent regulations set by U.S. agencies for ranges are the same as those found in the other countries in the study including Mexico, Taiwan, Brazil and South Africa. Also, it doesn’t take much to assume that the U.S. regulations that were in place during some of these studies have changed over time – the “best practices” of ranges in 1975 are not the same as the ones in effect today. Even seatbelts weren’t required to be worn in 1975. Times have changed and so have the ventilation systems, blood lead level monitoring for employees, and numerous other practices of shooting ranges, their employees and their visitors.

    Employees responsible for test firing firearms at factories every day regularly have their blood lead levels monitored. Our members report there are no problems with the monitoring results. Even this literature review acknowledges that of the studies conducted in the U.S. in the past ten years, no results show occupational exposure above the regulatory thresholds. Yet, the authors express unfounded and unwarranted concern that recreational target shooters, including “young children,” are at risk when their exposures are significantly lower than that of occupational shooters. What the results actually show is that when best practices are followed, exposure can be safely managed.

    Before the media takes off running with this literature review, we urge reporters to read the full report. They will see that this is clearly a solution in search of a problem.

  8. There was a study done at Gettysburg, perhaps 10 years ago or less. HUGE Amount of lead in and on the battlefield. There was so much being fired by both sides (many tons of rifle projectiles) that it is not uncommon to find a couple fused together from impact in flight.

    150 years it’s been sitting there, and they found NO lead leaching into the ground or water. They were pretty much pure lead, as I don’t think they were using alloys for Minie’ Balls, since the hollow base was designed to expand upon firing. (So far, none of the web sources has info on that detail.)

    IIRC, that report was published in a gun magazine, and may have been funded by the NRA.

  9. Another thing that isn’t mentioned about pure, unalloyed lead: Unlike the alloys used in most modern bullets, it is extremely cohesive and is much less likely to fragment. Shooting a modern lead-cored hunting bullet can lead to dozens of small lead alloy fragments in the entrails of a deer, which are typically scavenged by other animals. Dead soft lead round balls, like I shoot in my flintlocks, don’t significantly fragment. They stay together, so they aren’t likely to be ingested by a scavenger, and they’re way to big to be of use as a gizzard stone (unlike shot from a shotgun).

  10. I am reminded of the great asbestos panic. OMG we have to get the stuff out of our buildings, for the children. So it was done at great expense. As later studies found, asbestos left in situ was of minimal danger. The danger was to asbestos miners and, ironically, to the workers who removed the asbestos.

  11. Reference unleaded gasoline. I seem to remember that the real impetus for getting rid of tetraethyl lead additives in auto fuel was that catalytic converters were destroyed by leaded fuel. Since by 1976 almost all new cars were equipped with converters, the switch to unleaded fuel was a forgone conclusion.

    1. The lie was that lead in gasoline was a human health hazard. As has since been admitted, that was done to eliminate it so catalytic converters could be used. AFAIK, no lead was found in automotive type workers, such as pump jockeys, etc.
      What they don’t talk about is how unhealthy the replacement gasoline formulations have become, especially due to CA’s anti-fuel mentality. As is the typical results of PC idiocy, where they end up creating the very things they are fighting against, the new versions are major ground water pollutants.

  12. As regards outdoor ranges: The reason you can still find civil war bullets is because lead isn’t mobile in soil. The lead scare attacks on shooting ranges are just the typical PSH liberals get their knickers in a twist over based on some vaugley plausible sciency sounding BS.

  13. Lead outdoors isn’t much of a problem with proper hygiene. Indoors on the other hand is if proper dust control, housing keeping, and ventilation is not provided. Old ranges with bad ventilation (hey I belong to one of those!), spent cases everywhere, and steel plate backstops generating new lead dust with every impact are in fact dangerous. Proper ventilation to move smoke/lead primer/vaporized bullet bases, down range, cleaning of casings/residue off floors to keep it from recirculating in the environment, and rubber backstops which do not create lead dust on impact reduce if not eliminate the issue.

    The major problem is the respiration of lead dust and primer compounds indoors. Outside the air volume is sufficient that this isn’t an issue.

  14. Lead is (IIRC) one of those materials where there is no “thershold” set; that exposure to lead is considered to be damaging proportional to exposure, even at the lowest exposure level, and exposure is considered lifetime cumulative. Radioactives are considered the same.

    There is some body of evidence to suggest that this is not the case, that low levels of exposure have no immediate or cumulative effect.

    IIRC, anyway.

    1. That is at least the case with radiation. I suspect that similar studies have not been conducted for lead.

  15. Here’s a random thought: sure, it’s possible that lead at ranges might cause problems for gun owners…but is it really the government’s place to insist that gun owners *must* give up all use of lead, just to move the needle of lead exposure down a notch or two?

    I would propose that every hobby, every activity, has its potential risks. I would further propose that it should be up to the people who exercise that hobby, and not the government, as to what those risks ought to be. At most, the government should only make known what risks exist — they should not force hobbyists to avoid risks that the hobbyists themselves are willing to take, so long as those risks don’t put other people in an unreasonable amount of danger.

    1. Here’s a random thought: sure, it’s possible that lead at ranges might cause problems for gun owners…but is it really the government’s place to insist that gun owners *must* give up all use of lead, just to move the needle of lead exposure down a notch or two?

      No, but the world is filled with people who love to mind other people’s business.

      1. Which is why I can’t easily replace the individual magnets that have lost their chrome in my cube of Bucky Balls.

        1. I think this *may* be a key in not just protecting our right, though, but in expanding our rights.

          I think the case should be made that Bucky Balls aren’t dangerous enough to justify their banning. Yes, there are examples of people dying from them, but they are rare, and like other mildly (and not-so-mildly) dangerous things, the deaths can be prevented by being careful with their use and storage.

          Similarly, I have never heard of anyone choking on a kinder egg toy. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there’s really no reason why such things should be illegal in the United States.

          If the government pushes this lead issue far enough, it is my hope that we have enough clout to not only push back against the proposed regulations, but to push back against the myriads of other regulations as well…

          At least, I’d like to *think* we could do such things, but our mileage may vary, and this is a reminder that we need to be eternally vigilant in defending our freedoms…

          1. There’s something else with Kinder Eggs than the choking hazard. Cracker Jacks was able to include toys for years.

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