The Airborne Lead Hazard

Exposure to lead dust and fumes at the firing range can present a potential health risk to shooters, firearms instructors and other range employees. Protecting the health of range employees and shooters, while minimizing environmental contamination from lead exposures, is an important element in the safety plan for firing ranges.


Adults can be exposed to lead by breathing in lead dust or fumes from shooting or work activities, by eating, drinking or smoking in work areas, or by handling contaminated objects - and accidentally swallowing lead dust. Workers and shooters in many firing ranges have so much lead in their bodies that they are slowly being poisoned. The symptoms may hardly be noticeable at first. But over time, lead can damage the brain, blood, nerves, kidneys and reproductive organs. This damage can cause serious disability: memory loss, extreme tiredness, emotional problems, even kidney failure, coma or death.

Young children are especially affected by lead. Lead dust can collect on clothes during the day. When those clothes are worn home, the lead can contaminate shooters' and workers' cars and homes. Young children can then be poisoned by the lead-contaminated dust.


Lead poisoning can occur when people are exposed to large or small amounts of lead over time. Lead builds up in the body and may cause temporary or permanent damage. A blood lead test can show whether your body has absorbed a dangerous amount of lead. A high blood lead level is an indication that lead is building up in the body faster than it can be eliminated.


There are many symptoms or signs that suggest a problem with lead, but they can also be symptoms of other illnesses. It is also possible to have lead poisoning without noticing any symptoms. If you work around lead you should regularly see your doctor, whether or not you are experiencing the following symptoms:

Early Signs and Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Uneasy stomach
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability or nervousness
  • Metallic taste
  • Poor appetite
  • Reproductive problems

Later Signs and Symptoms

  • Aches/pains in stomach
  • Memory problems
  • Constipation
  • Muscle and joint pains
  • Nausea
  • Weak wrists or ankles
  • Weight loss
  • Kidney problems


Each individual responds differently to lead exposure. This chart indicates the blood lead levels at which you may experience the various ill effects of lead. In general, the effects of lead on children are even more serious.

Health Effect Blood Lead Level (mcg/dl)

Severe brain damage

Headaches, memory and
concentration problems,
sleep disturbances,
mood changes..............................60 - 70


Stomach pain, constipation,
diarrhea, loss of appetite...............50 - 70

Nerve disorders;
decreased red blood cells..............50

Male reproductive problems;
kidney damage.............................40

Slower reflexes.............................30

Harmful effects on the fetus;
increase in blood pressure.............10 - 15

Adapted from ATSDR, Toxicological Profile for Lead (1989)

Extreme cases of lead poisoning can result in convulsions, coma or death.

It is important to emphasize, however, that lead may be causing injury to the body even when none of these signs and symptoms are present. (See Table on health effects of lead.) Therefore, if you are a shooter or an employee at a firing range, it is important that you have a blood lead test regularly.


  • Exploding primers containing lead styphnate and the friction from lead slug against the gun barrel create airborne lead.
  • High lead dust levels can accumulate inside indoor ranges with inadequate ventilation.
  • Slugs hitting the bullet trap, walls, floors, or ceiling of the range also create lead dust.
  • Airborne lead dust can concentrate in outdoor ranges, depending on weather conditions.
  • Spent bullets and settled dust can contaminate both indoor and outdoor ranges.
  • Improperly cleaning the range also can cause settled dust to become airborne.


High levels of lead dust in firing ranges can settle on the bodies and clothes of employees and shooters. The dust can then be carried to their cars and homes, where it can be a hazard to their children.


Bullet loading creates a fine dust that is very difficult to clean. Melting lead to cast bullets produces a fume, which can remain airborne for several hours. The dust from these activities is readily inhaled, and can contaminate household surfaces. Never load bullets or melt lead in an unventilated area, inside the home, or anywhere children may frequent.


  • Make sure the range is correctly ventilated and that the ventilation system is working properly.
  • At the range, wash your hands and face before eating, drinking or smoking.
  • Wash hands and face before leaving the range.
  • Wash range clothes separately from the rest of the family's clothes.
  • Always load bullets in a ventilated area.
  • Do not load bullets in the home or in areas where children frequent.
  • Do not allow children into the bullet loading area.
  • Keep the bullet loading area clean by using detergent.



The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established a standard for lead (29 CFR 1910.1025) which covers shooting range employees. This regulation sets a "Permissible Exposure Limit" (PEL) for airborne lead of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m³), averaged over an 8-hour day.

However, the range owner should reduce the lead exposure to both employees and shooters to as low a level as possible.

Instructors are especially at risk because they spend more time on the firing range.

The range instructor has the greatest potential long-term exposure to lead.

A separate booth, with its own tempered and filtered air supply can be installed in the range. The construction will not reduce lead exposures to other range users, but it will reduce the range instructor's lead exposure.

An effective ventilation system produces a smooth airflow pattern. Poorly designed ventilation systems produce eddies and recirculation that can carry fumes and dusts emitted from weapons to the area behind the firing line.

Recirculation and channeling air flow can be caused by various structures in the firing range, such as:

  • overhead barriers,
  • sound barriers,
  • booth walls,
  • light fixtures,
  • poorly located air inlets, or even
  • the shooters.

It is very important that a ventilation system that serves the range area be completely separated from any ventilation for the rest of the building. The exhaust air from the range should not feed into air supplies for offices, meeting rooms or other businesses.

The planned use of a firing range should determine the design of the ventilation system. Improper use or maintenance of a firing range or the ventilation system can defeat the purpose of the ventilation system and increase the lead contamination.

Avoid the use of angled backstops with sand traps.

Although they are somewhat inexpensive, sand traps can generate a large amount of airborne lead dust and require frequent cleaning.

Escalator backstops and their variations, which trap bullets and their fragments, generate less dust and are easier to clean. Also, the waste lead can be sold to a recycler without having to be separated from sand.

Indoor firing ranges require frequent cleaning. Walls, floors, ceilings, and bullet traps must be cleaned regularly.

Frequent cleaning prevents settled dust from becoming an airborne inhalation hazard from people using the range or from air circulation.

It is essential to use appropriate methods in cleaning a firing range.

  2. Use a vacuum cleaner equipped with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to remove lead-contaminated dust.
  3. If a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter is not available, then a wet cleaning method must be used.
  4. Anyone cleaning a range must wear appropriate protective equipment. This includes an approved respirator, protective clothing, and shoes.
  5. To reduce the possibility of bringing lead dust into their homes, the employees cleaning the range need to shower and change clothes before leaving the site.
  6. Work clothing must be disposable or laundered separately to prevent contaminating the home.

Copper or nylon-clad bullets and non-lead primers (such as mannitol hexanitratetetracene) can significantly reduce the amount of airborne lead discharged in firing.

Sometimes, this substitution alone can reduce lead exposure to the point that no further range alterations are necessary.

In cases where it is necessary to use conventional primers, use this ammunition loaded with jacketed bullets.


Airborne lead dust is a concern in outdoor ranges and can contaminate the surrounding environment. Lead dust exposure to employees or shooters can occur.

Lead contamination in an outdoor environment can occur through water runoff and from wind carrying the lead offsite.

The process of removing spent bullets, or the face of a berm, can generate large quantities of lead dust.

Bullet traps or steel backstops, similar to those constructed in indoor ranges, can be used instead of earthen backstops. Although the initial cost may be high, the spent bullets can be recovered and sold without soil removal. The trap holds the bullets and fragments, minimizing the amount of lead pollution in the soil.


For more information on lead exposure and firing ranges, or the health effects of lead, please write or call:

Occupational Lead Registry
Department of Labor Standards
1001 Watertown Street
West Newton, MA 02465
Phone: (617) 969-7177 Fax: (617) 727-4581

To obtain a copy of the OSHA Lead Standard (29 CFR 1910.1025) or to file a complaint, contact the nearest OSHA area office:

Occupational Safety and Health Administration
639 Granite Street, 4th floor
Braintree, MA 02184
(617) 565-6924

Occupational Safety and Health Administration
138 River Road, Suite 102
Andover, MA 01810
(978) 837-4460

Occupational Safety and Health Administration
1145 Main Street
Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 785-0123

For more information on ventilation for firing ranges, call or write to:

National Rifle Association
1600 Rhode Island Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
(800) 336-7402

Contents of this brochure were adapted from the Texas Department of Health, "Firing Ranges: The Airborne Lead Dust Hazard."