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Gun buffs risk loading lungs with lead.

Gun buffs risk loading lungs with lead

The more blatant health effects of handguns have become painfully apparent in many U.S. cities. But as street killings take their toll, a new study indicates that a subtler sort of danger threatens law-abiding handgun hobbyists using indoor firing ranges: high blood levels of lead after inhalation of firearm-generated dust.

Bullets fly from guns with a bang following the ignition of "primer" material containing lead styphnate. That explosion, and the microscopic shearing of lead bullets as they travel down gun barrels, sends lead particles into the air and into shooters' lungs. A report in the August AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH -- the first to follow blood levels in indoor-range enthusiasts over time -- documents a significant risk of lead poisoning.

Sarah E. Valway of the Indian Health Service in Albuquerque, N.M., worked with Colorado health officials to measure lead exposure in 17 members of a few enforcement trainee class before, during and after a three-month period of firearm instruction at a state-owned indoor firing range.

The researchers found mean air lead levels 40 times the safety standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), despite the installation of a new ventilation system early in the study. And those levels are low compared with levels at most of the ranges Colorado health officials have examined, says study coauthor John W. Martyny of the Tri-County Health Department in Englewood.

No trainee had elevated blood levels before the training. But 15 of the 17 ended their training with levels deemed "elevated" by OSHA standards, and eight had levels above 1.93 micromoles per liter ([mu]mol/l), the threshold at which OSHA requires active medical monitoring. During the training period's peak month, when participant's spent about an hour in the firing range every four days, four trainees had levels above 2.9 [mu]mol/l, the point at which OSHA requires removing individuals from the source of exposure. Valway says the exposures during that period are probably typical for regular users of indoor ranges. Six weeks after training ended, blood tests measuring the body's total lead burden showed continued evidence of lead poisoning in five trainees.

The health effects from such exposures remain unclear, Valway says. The most obvious symptom detected among participants was a chronic metallic taste reported by three trainees. But shooters at other ranges have exhibited neurological symptoms such as hand twitching, she says. And other studies indicate family members may risk high lead exposures from handgun users who bring home lead dust on their clothes.

The researchers say their concern is not for the occassional handgun user. Their findings may, however, apply to many of the nation's 800,000 competitive pistol shooters and to employees of indoor ranges, who get cumulative doses of lead from repeated exposures. The revamped ventilation system helped somewhat in reducing lead exposure, they found. But comparative studies showed that far more benefit comes from switching to "jacketed" ammunition -- bullets coated with copper or nylon. (Most rifles already use such jacketed ammo.)

Although jacketed bullets cost about twice as much as lead ones, Martyny says they may prove cost effective compared with ventilation retrofit expenses and liability risks to range operators. The researchers failed to find a single private firing range willing to permit them to test users' lead levels.

OSHA estimates 16,000 to 18,000 indoor firing ranges operate in the United States. Approximately 50 new ranges open each year to serve the users of the nation's 70 million privately owned handguns.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 19, 1989
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