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Firing range hygiene: reduce lead exposure with these common sense precautions

Believe it or not, this isn't food.

Lead, if you didn't know, tastes sweet. That's why children used to enjoy munching on lead paint chips back in the days when paint contained lead. Spend too long on an indoor range that has poor ventilation and you'll begin to notice a sweet taste on your lips or even in your mouth--a reliable sign that it's time to get out of there. You're tasting the vaporized lead in the air.

While the materials found in modern ammunition cartridges (gunpowder, primer, bullet, etc.) are not nearly as toxic as they used to be, they're still not exactly health-inducing either. It's an unfortunate fact that we risk exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals every time we go shooting. Lead exposure is cumulative, and lead poisoning can take quite some time to show symptoms, especially in adults. Here's a list of what chronic lead poisoning can do to people, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • High blood pressure

  • Joint and muscle pain

  • Difficulties with memory or concentration

  • Headache

  • Abdominal pain

  • Mood disorders

  • Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm

  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women

The effects on children are even worse--potentially severe enough, in fact, that I do not allow my children to shoot at indoor ranges unless they're extremely well-ventilated and mostly empty of other shooters. The risk just isn't worth it, so we stay outside.

The good news is that there are several easy ways we can reduce our lead exposure at the range, and also avoid bringing it home with us. First and foremost, wash your hands after shooting. If you're taking a break from shooting to eat or drink, wash your hands first. When leaving the range, wash your hands again. Most firing ranges have lead-removing soap in the restrooms to get the nasty stuff off your hands. You should also bring baby wipes and wipe down your face, neck, and any exposed areas, like your forearms. Throw the wipes away at the range--don't bring them home. Don't eat or drink on the range if you can avoid it, and don't wear sticky lip gloss or lipstick while shooting.

Your range boots don't have to be this cute, but it helps.

Wear one pair of dedicated range boots or shoes when you go shooting, and store them outside your home. I keep mine in the mudroom at home and only wear them to the range. My children understand not to touch them, and when they were younger I simply wrapped them in a plastic kitchen trash bag and kept them in the trunk of my car so that they wouldn't be tempted to play with them or put them on. Keep anything that is regularly exposed at the range, including your range bag, out of your living space and away from your kids.

As soon as you get home, strip down and run your range clothes in their own dedicated load in the washing machine with hot soapy water. Shower immediately, starting with cool water if you can stand it. Hot water opens your pores and allows your skin to more readily absorb toxic residue. Cool water keeps your pores closed. I know it might be a little uncomfortable, especially in winter, but if you can avoid it, don't jump into a hot and steamy shower without a cool rinse first! Then, after you run your range clothes through the washing machine, run the machine again with some laundry soap and nothing else to rinse out any remaining lead residue.

Lead exposure can also occur when you're cleaning your guns, so do this outside whenever possible, or at least in a well-ventilated room (preferably with open windows) when not. Always wear nitrile gloves (latex can dissolve under certain gun solvents) and please, wear eye protection! Getting a chunk of solvent-soaked lead in your eye is a terrible, terrible thing that I guarantee you'll only do once.

Have your lead levels tested regularly, and if they're high, consider chelation therapy to remove as much lead from your body as possible. Then, work proactively to prevent future lead exposure and avoid the nasty symptoms listed above. While we can't totally prevent lead exposure as shooters, we can certainly protect our health--and that of our family--with just a few simple steps both at home and at the range.

Wash it off, clean it up, and stay safe out there!