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Reducing Exposures to Airborne Lead in Indoor Firing Ranges -- United States

Between 1980 and 1982, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) completed nine evaluations of exposures to lead in indoor firing ranges (1). Results show that exposure of shooters to airborne lead is greatly reduced by replacing traditional lead bullets with nylon-clad, copper-jacketed, or zinc ammunition.

Investigators conducted studies in municipal, state, and federal government firing ranges in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. Personal breathing-zone air samples were obtained to measure lead exposure of 90 persons firing weapons during qualifying tests with .38 caliber revolvers. The samples were analyzed for lead by atomic absorption spectrophotometry (2).

When shooters were firing lead bullets, their mean lead exposure was 110 ug/m((3)), calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). Forty-two (89%) of 47 exposures exceeded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard (3) for occupational exposure to lead (50 ug/m((3)) as an 8-hour TWA) (Table 2). When nylon-clad, zinc, and copper-jacketed bullets were being fired, the mean exposures to airborne lead were 41, 22, and 10 ug/m((3)), respectively, calculated as 8-hour TWAs. While these alternate types of ammunition were being fired, three (7%) of the 43 samples studied exceeded the OSHA standard for occupational exposure to lead. Reported by Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Br, Div of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, NIOSH, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: There are an estimated 16,000-18,000 indoor firing ranges in the United States (4) and an estimated 1,178,000 people employed in law enforcement (5). Hence, alternatives that reduce exposures to airborne lead in indoor firing ranges have important implications for the health and safety of these workers. Several previous studies have documented the occupational hazard of exposure to lead in indoor firing ranges, particularly among range masters and instructors (6,7). Major sources of such exposures are lead bullets (from which airborne particles are released during firing) and primers containing lead styphnate (a highly explosive compound used to initiate the combustion of gunpowder in the cartridge).

These exposures may be reduced by limiting the time a shooter or other person spends in the range and/or by improving the range's ventilation. In 1975, NIOSH developed criteria for the design and ventilation of indoor firing ranges (8). However, they are difficult to implement, particularly as "retrofits" of existing ranges, and high-efficiency ventilation is costly to install and operate. Also, while the criteria, when implemented, were sufficient to result in lead exposures below the then-current OSHA standard of 200 ug/m((3)), their ability to produce levels meeting the current standard is less certain.

These circumstances have prompted the search for more utilitarian control technologies. Substitution of a less toxic substance for a hazardous one has been found to be an efficient and effective primary preventive measure in occupational safety and health. Results of previous laboratory investigations showed that substituting unleaded materials for lead bullets and primers could reduce lead emissions from those sources (9,10). The present study documents the efficacy of this substitution under conditions of actual use.

There are disadvantages to the use of alternate bullets that must be considered; they include the increased cost of clad or jacketed bullets (although this cost in the long run may be less than that of operating a high-efficiency ventilation system) and possible safety hazards caused by the propensity of zinc bullets to "bounce back" from the bullet traps in some ranges.


  1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Health hazard evaluation and technical assistance report nos.: HETA 80-000-011; HETA 80-079-753; HETA 80-072-755; HETA 81-010-890; HETA 81-019-846; HETA 81-470-1040; HETA 81-303-947; HETA 82-380-1219; and HETA 82-195-1200. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1980-1982.

  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH manual of analytical methods. 2nd ed. P&CAM No. 173. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1977. (DHEW publication no. (NIOSH) 77-157-A.)

  3. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA safety and health standards. 29 CFR 1910.1000. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 1980.

  4. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Unpublished data.

  5. Statistical Abstracts. Government Printing Office. Washington, D.C., 1981:182.

  6. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Health hazard evaluation and technical assistance report no. HETA 73-000-022. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1973.

  7. Landrigan PJ, McKinney AS, Hopkins LC, Rhodes WW, Price WA, Cox DH. Chronic lead absorption: result of poor ventilation in an indoor pistol range. JAMA 1975;234:394-7.

  8. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Lead exposure and design considerations for indoor firing ranges. Cincinnati, Ohio; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1975. (DHEW publication no. (NIOSH) 76-130.)

  9. National Bureau of Standards. The reduction of airborne lead in indoor firing ranges by using modified ammunition. Washington, D.C.: National Bureau of Standards, 1977. (National Bureau of Standards special publication no. 480-26.)

  10. Fischbein A, Nicholson WJ, Weisman I. Comparative lead emissions from conventional and jacketed ammunition. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 1980;41:525-7.

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