UW research group reduces lead exposure at gun ranges

Two dozen workers at a Bellevue gun range recently showed symptoms of excessive lead exposure, bringing to light the dangers associated with gun use in enclosed spaces.

The findings echoed the work done by UW researchers in the department of environmental and occupational health sciences (DEOHS), who work with industries to lessen the danger of workplace exposure.

The work is done by the state-funded Field Research and Consultation Group, a subgroup within the DEOHS, to evaluate occupational safety in potentially dangerous industries, including gun ranges.

“The field group does consultative service work for companies throughout the state. So companies will ask us to evaluate workspace exposure and look at their controls and potentially help them design exposure controls, if they need them,” said Martin Cohen, director of the Field Research and Consultation Group and senior lecturer in the DEOHS.

Gun ranges are particularly dangerous, Cohen said. When shot, bullets release smoke containing lead. Lead exposure can result in damage to the nervous system, cardiovascular system, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system.

Furthermore, Cohen said lead attached to workers’ clothes can be a danger to their families.

“The dust that’s generated gets in the air so [workers] breathe it, then it gets in their clothes, so they can take it home and their children can [inhale higher amounts of] lead,” Cohen said.

According to Gerry Croteau, a research industrial hygienist with the Field Research and Consultation Group, the biggest danger to firing range workers happens during cleanup.

“The range workers … typically do not spend much time in the firing range themselves,” Croteau said. “The exposure is happening when workers involved are cleaning up the floor or cleaning up the filtration system.”

Cohen and Croteau recommended features such as better ventilation that would capture and remove airborne lead in order to prevent it from depositing on surfaces. However, effective ventilation systems are expensive and difficult to install due to tight spaces. The researchers said workers should also be required to wear protective clothing, such as Tyvek suits, shoe covers, and gloves.

Despite the dangers, the organization has no way to ensure that their recommendations will be followed.

“We don’t have any authority to require people to do anything. We give them recommendations, we’ll tell them what the regulations are, and tell them if there are overexposures, but we can’t force them to comply with the regulation,” Croteau said.

According to Janice Camp, senior lecturer in the UW School of Public Health and former director of the Field Research and Consultation group, the event could serve as a wake-up call.

“Indirectly, it is a good reminder that companies benefit from having an evaluation with the health and safety issues that they have,” Camp said. “The group at the University of Washington is one such resource to do that.”

Despite the renewed attention to lead dangers, Cohen said that these events are fairly rare.

“These days, it’s not that common to see very elevated lead exposures,” Cohen said. “Companies do a much better job of controlling exposures now than they did 40 years ago, but there’s still room for improvement.”

Reach reporter Ola Wietecha at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @OWietecha

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