Lead Poisoning Dangers

Plumbism And The Armed American
; .

Gene Stoner’s direct gas impingement operating system is
noted for pushing combustion gases — including various
heavy metals — back into your face.

I came of age in the 1970s. Like most folks of my era, we didn’t have a whole lot of stuff. Santa Claus brought me a Powerline 880 pellet rifle that was my constant companion, but I had to work to feed it.

I made $1.50 cutting my family’s grass every couple weeks. That princely sum kept me in plastic models and comic books. It also bought my ammunition — .177-caliber pure lead pellets came a couple hundred to a box.

I played with those things constantly. It’s scary to admit, but I even chewed on them from time to time if they ended up bent or similarly deformed. I likewise bit my split shot fishing weights to secure them in place on my line when out drowning crickets for bream. It never crossed my mind it could be harmful. I can only imagine how brilliant I might have been had I not befouled my neurons with such stuff when I was young and impressionable.

I once met a retired gentleman whose profession orbited around shooting machineguns. He did product testing for a major defense contractor and shot automatic weapons most every day. He traveled widely demonstrating his wares to any and all. Much of his shooting was indoors or in confined spaces. He breathed gun smoke in profound quantities for literally decades. I think we can all agree his seems like the coolest job in the history of work. However, there was a dark side.

This guy eventually suffered from some legit heavy metal poisoning. The symptoms were debilitating and not much treatable. All responsible shooters justifiably fixate on safety outside the gun. However, it also behooves us to devote a little brain space to the chemistry of shooting as well. While running a gun is indeed great fun, we’d really sooner not poison ourselves in the process.


Who among us doesn’t love doing this? However, handling and
(especially) firing guns exposes shooters to all sorts of hazardous
compounds. A few simple precautions can keep such stuff safe and recreational.

The Problem

The components of a firearms cartridge carry all manner of vile stuff deleterious to human physiology beyond the obvious holes downrange. Nancy Pelosi would have a stroke to know this, but I bought my first AR15 when I was in 10th Grade. I recall being a bit shocked the first time I ran the thing and got a face full of ammonia for my trouble. Nitrocellulose-based smokeless powders produce ammonia as a byproduct of combustion. The Stoner-inspired direct gas impingement operating system channels all the icky milieu right back into your face. It’s not a big deal if you are shooting and scooting tactically. However, sit still from a bench and the effect can become uncomfortable in short order. Slap a sound suppressor on the snout and things get markedly worse.

In addition to noxious gases, ammunition almost always incorporates elemental lead. It’s obviously found in the projectile itself but is also an integral component of most primer mixtures. As the nasty stuff aerosolizes when conflagrated, it is impossible not to breathe it in. Handling ammunition components while reloading, particularly with cast lead or unjacketed bullets, offers potential exposure as well.

Depending upon the specifics of the gun, the environment and the ambient conditions, every trigger pull can potentially cause you to ingest as much as 1,100 micrograms of lead. This is about the same amount of lead exposure a lead miner receives in a week. Given some of us run through multiple thousands of rounds per year, this can indeed give one pause.


LeadOff from Hygenall is specifically designed to take lead residue off of your hands.

The Villain

Lead is a soft, malleable metal with a relatively low melting point. Its chemical symbol is Pb and its atomic number is 82. Lead has the highest atomic number of any stable element. Three of lead’s isotopes are the endpoints of major nuclear decay processes.

Lead is the 38th most common element in the earth’s crust and has been used by man for industrial applications for millennia. Lead was the most commonly used material in the ancient world. To the Romans, lead was what plastic is to us today.

Roman troops threw lead sling bullets in combat, while their engineers used it for water pipes. The Latin word for lead is plumbum, hence the word plumbing. The problem is you really don’t want to get this stuff inside of you. Widespread lead poisoning has been postulated to be a significant contributor to the decline of the Roman Empire.


Bullet casting saves loads of money but casters need to take
care not to accidentally contaminate themselves or their
homes with lead. Photo: Yvonne Venturino

The Problem

Elemental lead remains an integral part of modern life even today. Untold tons of it end up in car batteries and lead was used in most house paint in America up until 1978. Lead persists in contaminated soil pretty much forever, though it is thankfully fairly inert in this form. Most of the lead currently used to make bullets comes from recycled car batteries rather than lead mines.

Elemental lead is actually physiologically harmless. It is the spontaneous byproduct lead oxide that causes problems. Lead intoxication can damage the heart, bones, kidneys and reproductive organs as well as the central nervous system. Most concerning is the effect of lead on the developing brains of children.

Everything lead does to the human body is bad. Your body tends to stash it in places you’d really sooner it not be. Lead salts end up in bones and blood. Like calcium, lead readily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Lead demyelinates neuronal sheaths in the central nervous system, stunts neuronal growth and interferes with neurotransmission. By a convoluted path it also tends to interfere with the synthesis of red blood cells and precipitate microcytic anemia.

Lead intoxication is called plumbism. Symptoms include belly pain, kidney damage and weakness in the extremities. Chronic exposure at high levels can cause infertility in males. Smaller doses can lead to miscarriage in pregnant women.

The most serious risk of lead intoxication is in developing children. Lead exposure prior to around age six is associated with developmental delay, learning issues, irritability, weight loss, sluggishness, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss, and if sufficiently severe, seizures. In grownups add memory problems, joint and muscle aches, high blood pressure and mood disorders. The CDC estimates around half-a-million American kids between the ages of 1 and 5 already have dangerously high blood lead levels. Most of this is from paint.

The problem, from a physician’s perspective, is those symptoms are maddeningly vague. There are some days at work when half the people who come see me professionally could meet the criteria for lead poisoning. Fatigue, belly pain, mood disorders, concentration issues, headache and muscle pain are background clutter in the human population. Teasing out lead issues can be a challenge.

Kids in America are routinely screened for blood lead levels. Medicaid will cover these screenings at 12 and 24 months. I’m the lead control guy at a large ammunition plant, and we screen our employees’ blood lead levels regularly. While there is no truly safe level of lead in the blood, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has established thresholds for intervention.


Just handling or loading a firearm can cause lead to be transferred
to your hands and eventually into your body. This is why you shouldn’t
eat, drink or smoke during shooting sessions.

Holy Snap! I’m Never Touching a Gun Again …

Not so fast. For all the doom and gloom, shooting guns — even shooting guns a lot —need not be particularly dangerous. I live in this space and used to bite fishing sinkers as a child, yet my blood lead levels are still negligible. As with any dangerous pursuit, we should simply use some basic precautions when working around ammunition, firing weapons and cleaning up afterward.

While you can indeed inhale lead, the biggest risk is from eating it. You obviously don’t sprinkle it over your mashed potatoes during Sunday dinner. However, you can get it on your fingers and then wipe your face. At the ammo plant, the first step on the rare occasion somebody has a bump in their blood lead is to put the employee in a dust mask. It’s not to filter the air they breathe. It is simply to keep them from rubbing their faces. The primary area of intervention among shooters is simply keeping the lead residue off of your skin.


Shooters face higher risk from lead contamination,
though a few simple tips can minimize this risk.

A Wee Bit Of Science

Lead oxide is cationic. That means it has a natural positive charge. Human skin is anionic, meaning it is negatively charged. This makes your skin electrostatically attract lead dust. Unfortunately, soap operates via an unrelated mechanism and can do a fairly poor job of removing charged lead particles from exposed skin.

The first step toward controlling lead exposure is to keep it off of you in the first place. It is a good idea to wear rubber gloves when cleaning your weapons or handling components during reloading. If you can’t discipline yourself to keep your fingers off your face, drag out one of those accursed COVID masks. I’ll be honest, though. I’m not doing it anymore myself.

There is a company called Hygenall that makes a series of products called LeadOff claiming to use actual science to help get the lead off of your skin. They make disposable wipes and foaming hand cleansers purported to remove more than 99% of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, mercury, silver, zinc and nickel from contaminated skin. None of their stuff is expensive and it is available on Amazon.

Hanging with my kids was always the best part of reloading back when they were young. I’m living proof you can spend a lifetime around guns without suffering any deleterious effects from lead poisoning. Like most things, however, know your enemy, make sensible decisions, and be mindful.


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