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Lead Exposure from Shooting Sports

We’ve had several questions about this recently.  One is posted below.  If you have an answer for this reader, please post it as a comment and I will share it with the reader directly as well.  Thank you.

April 11, 2014

Hi Tamara,

I have a question regarding firing ranges. My son is almost 15 years old and is interested in shooting high caliber rifles at a local outdoor firing range. As you well know, typical rifle ammunition is lead based. It goes without saying that he may readily ingest microscopic amounts of lead dust/vapor that are likely blowing around in the environment of the rifle range. Would these extremely small ingestions pose any developmental brain threat to a 15 year old? Also, there is plenty of data regarding the brain development issue in young children. At what age can a parent no longer be concerned about lead and brain development? I recognize that lead can cause brain related symptoms in adults, but these would be different from the brain development concerns of children. I find very little written about lead and the teenage brain. Any information you can provide will be appreciated.

Best regards,


3 Responses to Lead Exposure from Shooting Sports

  1. Peter D. Rappo, M.D. April 20, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    As a primary care pediatrician, it is my role not only to educate my patients, but also to learn from them. Several years ago, the mother of one of my patients approached me with a question regarding competitive shooting at indoor and outdoor gun ranges. One of her son’s teammates had been identified as having an elevated lead level of 25. Subsequent testing of this mother’s lead level and two of her sons revealed lead levels in the low 20s.There is a surprisingly detailed literature about lead exposure at gun ranges in the environmental and OSHA literature, but comparatively little in the medical literature. Our practice, as part of our adolescent risk questionnaire, has always asked patients about the presence of weapons in the home to assure that the weapons were safely stored. However, we now ask whether or not our patients go to shooting ranges. With this additional question, we have identified one other adolescent with an elevated lead level into the 20s. There is no safe level of lead. During my 37 years of practice, I have watched the action level of lead decrease from 45 to 5. Although young children are at greatest risk from lead elevation, older children and adults can be significantly cognitively impacted by exposure to lead. Ironically, this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has a case report of an adult who managed to achieve a blood lead of 91 simply by stirring his morning coffee with an antique spoon that was 50% lead. Patients who do competitive shooting note that some ranges are clearly cleaner than others. Simple remedial and preventative strategies would include avoidance of prone shooting and picking up brasses, avoiding hand loading of ammunition, wearing a mask while shooting, not eating or drinking at the gun range, changing clothes before returning home, and blowing one’s nose to remove any environmental lead dust. I have seen websites that encourage children to have their birthday parties at a gun range-shooting a 22 caliber rifle and the having ice cream and cake. This is a truly bad idea. It is hard to suggest what the ongoing of low-level lead exposure would be to the adolescent brain. Suffice it to say that lead can have hematologic, metabolic, and cognitive effects across the age spectrum.

    Peter D. Rappo, M.D.
    Assistant Clinical Professor, Harvard University School of Medicine
    Medical Consultant, Magellan Diagnostics

    • Tamara April 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Dr. Rappo,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this parent’s question. I will forward your response to him right away to make sure he sees it.


    • Robin Horsewood August 14, 2014 at 6:39 am #

      Thank you for taking time and covering all the aspects in your reply. It was very informative.

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