When it comes to lead in bullets, the issue is not environmental pollution, but the pollution of the truth. Obama’s recent ban on lead in the fishing and shooting industries is nothing more than a below-the-belt parting shot at responsible sportsmen and gun owners.
Lead toxicity has long been used as a vehicle to attack firearms ownership, hunting, and shooting sports. Because it has been used as a political tool, finding the truth about the environmental impact of lead-based projectiles is very difficult as you have to sort through heaps of yellow journalism and politically-charged “research” to find any truthful data.
Headlines such as “Poisonous Pastime,” and “Loaded with Lead: How Gun Ranges Poison Workers and Shooters,” provide scare tactics, and political articles and sketchy studies sway public opinion against lead projectiles.
The radically anti-gun Violence Policy Center released a study, which pretends to be independent, that suggests that recent “rampage killings” were caused by the shooter contracting lead poisoning by shooting firearms:
“Lead poisoning has long been known to cause terribly debilitating and sometimes fatal effects on one’s body. But there is a growing body of evidence that the neurological damage that lead causes also helps cause violent criminal behavior, perhaps even “rampage” killings. Ironically, overexposure to lead at shooting ranges may therefore cause some violent gun crime.” – Violence Policy Center
Others claim that lead poisoning from shooting ranges is somehow more deadly than lead poisoning from other sources:
“While lead poisoning usually takes a good deal of time to work its way through the body and cause symptoms, exposure from firing ranges may cause symptoms to appear within a matter of days or weeks. In fact . . . . if the lead contained in a single bullet were totally dissolved in the water supply it could contaminate enough water to affect hundreds of thousands of people.” – organicconsumer.org
They fail to mention that those hundreds of thousands of people, their children, and their grandchildren would likely live and die before that bullet ever totally dissolved in a water supply. Their recommendation for preventing lead poisoning also focuses on firearms:
“Treatment and prevention of lead poisoning . . . . First, the person must completely eliminate all sources of lead from their daily activities, including any handling of firearms . . .” – Organic Consumers Association
The Violence Policy Center released a “study” that details how to prevent lead poisoning. Here we learn that lead poisoning and pollution is not caused by just any firearms, it is caused by those evil “assault weapons,” machine guns, and by “high capacity magazines.” And, “No children should be allowed at shooting ranges, nor should they participate in or be exposed to ammunition reloading, since there is no “safe” level of lead exposure for children.”
Congress should forbid use of federal dollars for any range that permits use of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, or machine guns.” – Poisonous Pastime, Violence Policy Center.
With all the confusing misinformation and political twisting of valid studies, what is the truth about lead? This is something I have researched in the past, but I just spent three days researching data and trying to again sort out the truth about lead. Rather than writing a lot of technical jargon and exact data that will vary from location to location depending on a ton of different factors, I will try to simplify some general truths about lead as it applies to shooting and outdoor sports.
Lead is hazardous to your health.
We all know this, but sometimes we don’t really let it sink in. In fact, it is best to try to prevent it from sinking in, because exposure to lead can take place through absorption through the skin, as well as by ingestion or respiration. The ways in which lead can enter our bodies depends on how we interact with lead. I refuse to use certain types of grease that are used in an industry I work in, because they consist of 60% lead in a form that is easily absorbed by the body. Instead, I insist on a copper-based grease. Other ways that we are exposed to lead may pose little risk or absorption, but can be ingested when we eat with residue on our hands. Any time you will be working or playing around lead, you need to think about how to limit exposure.
Lead is heavy, and does not move easily
I once lived near an abandoned lead mine. The ground throughout the area was loaded with lead. The mine was an open pit that filled with water and became a small lake. Kids used to dive off the rocks and swim in it, until it was tested and found to be hazardous, not because of lead, which wasn’t present in the water in any measurable concentrations, but because the mining company had left chemicals in the ground that entered the water. People in the area used wells drilled through the lead-saturated ground, and no trace of lead could be measured in their water. In another area, it may have been more dangerous, but there the lead was not moving into the water supply.
In several studies of long-running firing ranges, high lead concentrations were found on the ranges themselves, but in the surrounding area and water, lead was not found. Often the difference of a few yards from the impact area shows a drastic drop in lead concentrations. Core testing shows that high concentrations of lead at the surface of an impact area in an outdoor range often do not result in elevated lead deeper under the surface. Lead from bullets will usually stay near the surface where it lands, instead of traveling downward into the soil. At most firing ranges, there is little risk of lead contaminating the surrounding areas.
Lead decomposes slowly
In order for lead to leach into the soil or enter the water systems, it has to decompose. The rate of decomposition of lead is dependent on environmental factors, but is generally less than 1% per year. For a lead bullet to fully decompose and enter the surrounding soil may require 100 to 300 years or more. Lead decomposes faster in acidic soils and slower in alkali soils, and since most soils are not greatly acidic, most of the lead from bullets will basically stay where they landed for centuries.
Most bullets fired today are jacketed, with little to almost no exposure of the lead. The rate of decomposition is a percentage of the exposed surface area, so the bulk of the lead deposited on shooting ranges or elsewhere by bullets is not exposed to weathering.
Lead pollution from hunting
Lead pollution from hunting is pretty much a non-issue. The CDC’s astonishing statistics on the amount of lead “dumped” into the environment by shooting include the amounts of ammunition fired each year by the US military on closed military ranges and by law enforcement, mainly in indoor ranges where the lead is recovered and recycled. A large percentage of the bullets fired by sport shooters are also fired on indoor ranges, and most of the rest on outdoor ranges. Very few bullets are actually fired in hunting, and many of these are recovered in the animal, or if not, do not result in any kind of high lead concentration, since it is only a bullet here or there, not the concentrated numbers of bullets you would find confined to a shooting range.
So to claim that our forests and plains are being contaminated by thousands of tons of lead being shot by hunters (basing those statistics on the total amount of lead used to build projectiles for the US military, law enforcement, and sport shooters) is a gross misinterpretation of the facts. Almost all of those projectiles are either recovered and recycled, or are confined to restricted military, federal, state, or private shooting ranges. Very few bullets are actually fired by hunters in the woods.
There are much better solutions
There are better ways to mitigate lead deposited on shooting ranges than simply banning the use of lead in projectiles. We have seen a pattern of political tampering with the lead industry for no other reason than to try to make ammunition more expensive and harder to obtain for the citizens of the United States. But this affects many industries, and raises taxpayer burdens by increasing the cost of military and law enforcement training.
More and more ranges are recovering and recycling the bullets fired on their ranges. It makes economic sense. Shooters pay to use a range and in the process deposit a valuable resource that can be easily recovered and sold. This is a trend that is rapidly increasing, and even outdoor ranges are becoming self-cleaning operations in which lead is being removed from the range before it has a chance to decompose.
The value of lead and environmental concerns of range owners lead to the design or redesign of their ranges to capture and isolate the fired bullets to recover the lead for recycling.
There are individual or companies that will voluntarily recover projectiles from shooting ranges for the value of the metals. Ranges can be designed to allow easy cleanup and to completely isolate the projectiles from the surrounding soils and water. The addition of phosphates to the soil on shooting ranges has been shown to prevent the decomposition of lead and the movement of lead through the ground. Certain plants can be planted on shooting ranges to remove lead from the soil. This promises to be an effective and affordable way to decrease the amount of lead deposited in shooting ranges and prevent leaching through the soil.
The banning of lead is just the first step.
Already, there is beginning to be talk about the environmental dangers of other metals when used as projectiles. We can expect to see campaign to ban the use or tungsten, steel, copper, and various alloys in the production of ammunition.
Should shooters be concerned about lead?
Shooters should absolutely be concerned about lead. If we don’t protect ourselves, who will? To protect yourself, you must consider the sources for lead exposure when shooting:
In the firearm itself. Small amounts of lead powder can be deposited in the bore and in the action of a firearm when it is fired.
In the air. The exposed lead at the base of some bullets can be vaporized and suspended in the air along with some fine lead dust when fired. The muzzle blast generally directs these away from the shooter, but muzzle brakes, contrary wind, or poor ventilation can direct it back toward the shooter.
In front of the firing position. Directly in front of the shooter, lead dust can be deposited on the ground or on a bench. Be aware that these areas have a potential from transferring lead dust to your hands, equipment, or clothing, or anything else that touches it.
On steel targets. Steel targets deform bullets and become coated with lead dust. This is one reason I prefer self-healing polymer targets. Always consider targets of any type, but especially steel targets, to be a potential source of lead exposure.
In the impact area of the range. Bullets come to rest in the impact area of the range. Ranges with steel bullet traps deform bullets and create lead dust, just like steel targets do.
Spent cases and reloading. Spent cases contain lead residue. They should not be toys for children or handled carelessly. If you are casting lead bullets, then there is potential for exposure to lead vapors.
Protecting ourselves against lead exposure is not difficult.
Use a suppressor. Suppressors suppress harmful noise, but they also reduce recoil without sending lead vapors and dust back toward the shooter like a brake does.
Use gloves. Gloves protect the hands from burns and abrasions when shooting, but also protect the hands from lead residue. Gloves should always be worn when collecting spent brass, collecting spent bullets, cleaning, disassembling, or repairing a firearm, peeping cases for reloading, casting bullets, or anything else that might expose the hands to lead. For these tasks, disposable nitrile or latex gloves are ideal, as they can be discarded and don’t bring lead back into the home.
Avoid dirty indoor ranges. If you are shooting at an indoor range, be sure it is a modern range with good ventilation that pulls the air away from the shooters and does not recirculate it unless it is scrubbed. If an indoor range looks dusty and dirty, it probably is loaded with lead, too.
Wear protective gear. When cleaning or sweeping a range or casting bullets, use a respirator and keep your skin covered.
Wash your hands. One of the most effective ways to protect yourself from ingesting lead is to simply wash your hands before you eat. But you do that anyway, don’t you?
Despite all the misinformation about shooting and lead, most lead from ammunition is recovered and recycled or remains confined to restricted shooting ranges. Hunting does not introduce lead into the environment in any meaningful way, since it is just a bullet here and there and no concentration of lead.
Protecting yourself from lead exposure is as simple as choosing a good range to shoot at, wearing gloves, and washing your hands.
Virginia Polytech Institute and State University Paper
Virginia Tech Paper: Lead Distribution at a Public Shooting Range
Princeton University Paper: Lead Contamination in Soil at Outdoor Firing Ranges