This is one of those things I see more people talking about. It's a good thing that people within the community are starting to discuss it because it's something that poses a very real threat to shooters and their families. Let's start off this discussion by saying there is no "safe level" of lead in your system, you should strive to have no lead present in your blood. Period. But as shooters, this is nearly impossible to accomplish. But we can act to minimize our exposure.
Let's start off talking about how lead gets into our bodies.
As you likely know, the vast majority of ammunition we shoot in the United States has a lead core. In some cases we shoot bullets that have no jacket at all and are simply lead bullets. Things like .22LR for example often times have exposed lead bullets. You can also find commercial ammo of the centerfire variety that feature exposed lead bullets. I know a good number of commercial Cowboy Action loads have lead bullets.
Simply handling these cartridges can present a health risk. Some studies have shown that lead can be absorbed through the skin, yet other sources disagree. However, if you get lead on your hands, which you can do simply by touching lead, then touch your face or handle food that you eat, you've now introduced lead into your system.
Some copper jacketed ammo has an exposed lead base. You wouldn't know this unless you pulled a bullet from a loaded round, or found a fired bullet laying on the ground. If a bullet has an exposed lead base, when you fire the round the explosion will create lead dust in and around the firearm. Of course this is true when firing regular non-jacketed lead bullets as well. That puff of smoke you see after firing a round often times contains lead dust.
Know what you're shooting with regards to ammo. There are lead safe products like Syntech from Federal. You can also make sure your regular range ammo doesn't have an exposed lead base. This can help reduce the possibility of ingesting lead, especially if you shoot outdoors and away from others. If you're shooting at public ranges, you have to concern yourself with what others may be shooting and know that their ammo is producing lead dust.
Shooting steel targets is another potentially dangerous act. Even when jacketed bullets hit steel, they rip apart and lead dust is sent into the air and lead fragments are scattered all around the target area. Handing steel targets that have been shot is another way to get lead onto your skin or clothing. So always be mindful and careful when shooting steel and handling steel targets.
Lead dust presents a problem several ways. 1) you can inhale it. 2) it can get on exposed skin and be absorbed (according to some studies) through the skin or from there it can get into your mouth, eyes or other openings. 3) It can get on your clothing and from there it can be transferred to your skin or even to others in your household.
It's critically important that you know lead poisoning in children can be very dangerous and detrimental to their health. It's bad for adults, but it's potentially very bad for children and their developing brains and nervous system.
So how can we prevent lead poisoning? Let's chat about a few options. This is by no means an extensive "what to do" list, but it's a start.
One of the things you'll see some big names in social media wearing these days are CBRN respirators and in some cases, extremely skilled shooters like Lucus Botkin of TrexArms can be seen using full on SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) systems. These systems provide a positive airflow to the user and while effective at keeping things like lead out of your respiratory system, they're insanely expensive. If you have a sponsor giving them to you, they certainly make sense. If you have to buy them, they're not so practical. They also comprise only one aspect of protecting yourself from lead poisoning.
The image above is a current production MSA CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) respirator and is what I keep around for that inevitable SHTF situation. This MSA mask is available as surplus for around $100 and with the proper filter can provide clean air, at the cost of comfort. It also doesn't work well with facial hair. That means if you see me bare faced in video or on Instagram, I'm probably expecting company and I've prepared my face for wearing this device. :)
You can also find less obtrusive and more affordable respirators at your local hardware store like Menards or Home Depot.
Should you wear a respirator if you're shooting? Well, it doesn't hurt. However most people will find wearing such a device will make their time shooting with friends and family far less enjoyable. I personally never wear a respirator while shooting because I almost always shoot outdoors. But shooting outdoors doesn't mean you can't or wont be exposed to lead.
If you shoot indoors I would highly recommend you consider wearing a respirator. I know when I shot indoors years ago most of the time I had a respirator with me but it rarely made it out of my range bag because I felt silly wearing it. While indoors you deal with generally poor ventilation and a number of shooters shooting a variety of ammo. You also have steel traps that are ripping bullets apart upon impact and turning some of that into lead dust, etc.
When you visit indoor ranges you walk through lead dust that's piled on the floor. It may not seem like there's a lot of it present, but looks can be very deceiving. When you walk through lead dust with your shoes, when you return home and walk through the house you're dispensing it every where you step. On the hardwood floors and on the carpet... the same floors your children likely roll around on and play on. Always take your range shoes off outside and leave them there.
The clothes you wear to the range, either indoor or outdoor, will collect lead dust as well. This means when you go home you have poison all over your shirt, pants, shoes, etc. If you're concerned about the safety of your family, you need to quarantine your shooting clothes the moment you get home. I know this sounds paranoid, but I'm being serious, this is how parents that shoot a lot give their families lead poisoning.
Many times I see people wearing respirators but they still have exposed skin that's collecting lead dust and they likely don't handle their clothing properly when they leave the range. They take the respirator off, throw it in a lead contaminated range bag, jump in their car with lead dust covered clothing and drive home where they throw the lead dust covered clothing in a hamper with all their other dirty clothes. Now they, their significant other or their children pick up the dirty clothing and it transfers to their skin.
It's really this bad and this really happens. Even people who think they're being safe are only going through the motions and in actuality are still exposing themselves and their loved ones to dangerous levels of lead.
Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk of getting lead poisoning.
Wear specific range clothing. Only wear this clothing to the range and when you're done, quarantine it so that it doesn't contaminate other things or people in your home. Take it off outside, put it in a sealed bag, and wash it immediately.
Have a pair of shoes you use for going to the range and never bring them in the house. Leave them in the garage or in a place where no one normally walks around.
Wear a respirator when shooting, especially while indoors. When done, properly clean the respirator because it will be covered in lead dust and store it.
Never handle lead with exposed hands. If you reload, use gloves while handling lead bullets. When at the range, always wear gloves when loading rounds into a magazine or cylinder.
After shooting, hit the shower and thoroughly scrub your entire body. Normal soap doesn't remove lead from your skin. You will need to use special soap such as De-Lead.
Visit this CDC website to learn more about how to avoid lead poisoning.
Common sense goes a long way. Most shooters never give lead poisoning so much as a passing thought. You may not even recognize the symptoms of severe lead poisoning. Be sure you check out the link provided in the previous sentence to see if you have any symptoms. The best way to make sure you're not suffering from lead poisoning is to do a yearly blood test. Ask your doctor about it.
If you do have lead poisoning, depending on how severe it is, there are things you can do to slowly reduce the presence in your body. There are drugs that will help you pass the lead in your urine that your doctor can prescribe, but most often reducing your exposure and eating healthy will allow your body to slowly detox itself.
EDIT: I see some people can't take a post that shares ways to avoid bringing lead home to their families, or how to take precautions to avoid lead exposure themselves, without completely freaking out. The ideas I've shared above can be used in part to help reduce the chance you will get lead poisoning. Probably the biggest thing you can do is find a range with good ventilation if you must shoot indoors, wash your hands with De-Lead when leaving the range and leave your shoes in the garage that you wore to the range. If you shoot outside, don't handle steel targets without gloves and don't wear your shoes inside after shooting.
The comments about the respirators were meant to highlight the fact some people wear them but totally disregard the other issues like lead on their exposed skin, clothing, shoes, or hands.
If you are a parent, I would be a bit more extreme in how safe you are because I know for a fact you can give lead poisoning to your children if you're not careful. How do I know? My business partner unknowingly brought lead home on his shoes and clothing when Copper co-located with an indoor range. He didn't even shoot on it, but he walked around it a lot. His daughter tested positive for high levels of lead, and she never stepped foot in the store or range.
Here's a story from a Facebook follower who got lead poisoning just as my friends daughter did who never stepped foot in a firing range. She got it from her dad wearing lead dust covered clothing home.
If you have more information, feel free to post it below. I'm not a doctor and I'm by no means a subject matter expert. What I've shared here is information I've gleaned from being in the shooting community for well over 30 years.
Be safe everyone!