Lead is a cumulative toxin known to damage the nervous system and reproductive system. Lead is also known to cause cancer. You can greatly reduce your exposure to lead by simply washing your hands immediately after reloading or handling lead, and before eating, drinking or smoking. With proper handling precautions, casting bullets and reloading are safe and enjoyable hobbies.
Handling Lead Bullets
Cast lead bullets develop an outer layer of lead oxide. Lead is relatively soft and the lead and lead oxide can be abraded from the surface of the bullet and transferred to the surface of your fingers when you handle lead. The lead can then be ingested when eating, drinking, smoking, or placing any other items into the mouth including chewing gum and tobacco products. The most common cause of lead poisoning is from ingesting lead.
Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead or lead containing products prior to eating, drinking, or smoking. Keep your fingers out of your mouth when handling lead. Additional protection can be provided by wearing latex or nitrile gloves when handling lead.
Casting Lead Bullets
Melting lead in large quantities and casting lead bullets offers more opportunity for lead to enter the body and there are some special lead handling precautions that are particular to lead casting, in addition to the general lead handling precautions mentioned above.
Primers are slowly becoming lead-free, but the majority of primers still contain lead, and many shooters and reloaders are not aware that new and spent primers are a potential source of lead contamination. The same technique is used to reduce exposure to lead in primers, but in addition to washing lead residue from your hands, you should also be careful to avoid inhaling fine dust from new or used primers. When reloading, the yellow dust you might find in the priming station is a toxic lead compound. Clean the effected parts with a disposable towel dampened with a good cleaner. Do not use a can of compressed gas to blow off the dust as it will become airborne where it can be inhaled, and will then settle as a contaminate on adjacent surfaces.
Shooting outside seldom results in a significant exposure to lead, although shooting ranges can become so contaminated with lead that local ground water quality is adversely effected. In addition, lead shot from shot guns poses an additional risk to wildlife that might accidentally ingest it.
Indoor shooting ranges often pose a serious health risk by not providing sufficient ventilation. The ventilation system should positively draw gun smoke from the shooter toward the target, where it should be vented outside, or filtered using a method that removes almost all smoke and fumes before returning it to the shooter. If you have a sore throat after shooting, or you have a lot of congestion the next 48 hours with black or gray phlegm, the ventilation is not nearly adequate. You should advise the owner of the shooting range and refuse to shoot there until the problem is corrected.
Tumble Cleaning Brass Cases
When reloading ammunition, using a tumbler with a mildly abrasive medium to clean the brass is a common practice. The inside of the case and particularly the inside of the spent primer contains lead compounds. Tumble cleaning removes these fine particles and they remain in the cleaning media. They can become airborne when sifting brass to separate it from the cleaning media. If airborne, these lead compounds can be inhaled. They will also settle onto adjacent surfaces and concentrate there as lead contaminates. Most people won't think about lead contamination when cleaning brass, and will be less likely to follow lead safe practices.
Place a used dryer sheet in the vibratory cleaning media to collect the fine black dust that's generated during vibratory bowl cleaning. This will make your cleaning media last longer, and will help prevent lead contamination. Dispose of the dirty dryer sheets properly. Replace the cleaning media when it starts to become gray. Don't sift brass through an open colander to separate the cleaning media. Use a covered rotating basket style separator and always keep the lid closed while the basket is spinning. Keep the lid closed for a minute after rotating the separator basket to allow the dust to settle. Clean the area around the tumbler and media separator after every use, by spraying a cleaner on the surface and wiping the damp surfaces with a paper towel. Be careful not to stir up the dust and allow it to circulate in the air.
Shooting deposits lead in the bore of a firearm. This occurs to a much larger degree when shooting cast lead bullets, but because of the lead content of primers, some lead deposits will form even when shooting copper jacketed bullets. Any place powder residue collects is a potential source of lead. A mildly abrasive bore cleaner will mechanically remove lead deposits without dissolving them. The more common chemical bore cleaners will dissolve or suspend the lead compounds in solvent which migrate deeper into skin, under fingernails and into cuticle tissue. Dispose of dirty patches and other cleaning materials properly and wash your hands thoroughly before eating, drinking, smoking, etc. Nitrile gloves can reduce exposure to lead and other harmful chemicals when cleaning firearms.
Special Precautions For Women and Children
Male reproductive processes are damaged by high serum lead levels, but female reproductive processes are more permanently damaged by exposure to lead.
Children and fetuses are developing, and lead interferes with proper physiological development. Nerve cells are particularly affected by high levels of lead, and most structures of the body rely on nerve cells to function properly. There is no safe level of lead for a child's mental development. Average serum lead levels correlate to lower IQ when compared to children with below average serum lead levels. The less lead, the better.
The human body slowly excretes lead, but it also stores lead in bones. It's possible for serum lead levels to return to normal after a large exposure, and then spike again when the body uses the store of bone calcium to heal a fractured bone or during pregnancy when a developing fetus increases the requirement for calcium. There have been documented cases where a woman was exposed to high levels of lead, recovered, and later had a child with lead poisoning because the prior exposure stored lead in her skeletal system.
In general, the best strategy to avoid lead poisoning is consistent attention to maintaining a clean workplace and following some simple hygiene practices. Be mindful of the lead fumes and be particularly careful about lead oxide dust and the places it will settle.
Lead poisoning is cumulative, so any reduction in lead intake will help prevent lead poisoning. The human body maintains a normal blood lead level of about 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL). 10 ug/dL is generally recognized as the early stage of lead poisoning, with anything above 20 ug/dL requiring an immediate chemical cleaning of any lead contaminated environment or removal from that environment. Serum levels of 40 ug/dL usually require chelation treatment to remove lead from the body, in addition to the previous elimination of environmental lead contamination.
The following sites provide more details about general lead handling safety.
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