Tuesday, 11 November 2014
LEAD EXPOSURE AT NATION'S GUN RANGES POSES 'A SERIOUS PROBLEM'
Indoor, outdoor, public and private, gun ranges dot the national landscape like bullet holes riddling a target, as the popularity of shooting has rocketed to new heights with an estimated 40 million recreational shooters annually.But a hidden risk lies within almost all of America's estimated 10,000 gun ranges: firing lead-based ammunition spreads vapor and dust filled with lead, an insidious toxin.Thousands of workers, shooters and their family members have been contaminated at shooting ranges due to poor ventilation and contact with lead-coated surfaces, a Seattle Times investigation has found.Those most at risk are range workers who inhale airborne lead as they instruct customers and clean up spent ammunition. Lead exposure can cause an array of health problems — from nausea and fatigue to organ damage, mental impairment and even death.Employees have carried lead residue into their homes on their skin, clothes, shoes and work gear, inadvertently contaminating family members, including children, those most vulnerable to lead's debilitating health effects.For the public, shooting firearms is the most common way of getting lead poisoning outside of work, according to national statistics.Through documents, interviews and a first-of-its-kind analysis of occupational lead-monitoring data, The Times has found reckless shooting-range owners who've repeatedly violated workplace-safety laws.By law, owners are responsible for protecting employees from lead-polluted workplaces by following regulations on air quality, surface contamination, safety gear and various other standards. Yet state and federal regulators are doing little to make certain gun ranges put such protections in place, records show.The nation has an estimated 6,000 commercial indoor and outdoor gun ranges, but over the past decade, only 201 have been inspected, according to a Times analysis of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records. Of those inspected, 86 percent violated at least one lead-related standard.Places like Manchester Firing Line Range in New Hampshire, Target World in Ohio, Top Brass Sports in Tennessee and the Sharp Shooter in Texas each had more than 20 lead-related violations.OSHA typically doesn't examine a gun range unless it receives a complaint or a blood-test report that shows an employee has been overexposed to lead. In states such as Washington and California, authorities knew about workers with severe lead poisoning, but failed to inspect the shooting ranges that employed them, public records show.In 14 states, including Alaska, Iowa and Louisiana, federal and state occupational agencies didn't inspect a single commercial gun range from 2004 to 2013, The Times found.Thousands of other U.S. ranges are volunteer-run clubs and aren't subject to OSHA inspections because they have no employees.One volunteer who regularly cleaned a club in Iowa lost feeling in his hands after chronic lead exposure and now has trouble doing basic tasks like picking up coins or firing a gun accurately.Publicly, the National Rifle Association dismisses contentions by health officials that lead is a widespread health and safety problem at shooting ranges. To their members, the lobbying group encourages owners to clean up their ranges to avoid inviting government scrutiny.The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which analyzes occupational hazards for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says lead exposure at gun ranges is "a serious problem and we think it could be quite widespread," said Dr. Elana Page, medical officer for NIOSH.The risk isn't limited to range employees, Page added. "Some firing ranges cater to children, they have birthday parties and special events," she said. "I think it's really important that people are aware they can have significant exposure at a firing range, even for members of the general public."James Maddox, a former gun-range manager in Kentucky, talks about himself as two different men: the jovial, hardworking man before lead poisoning, and the reclusive, weakened man after."I wish I could just show you guys the type of person I was," he said, with tears streaming down his face. For the entire "Loaded with Lead" series: www.seattletimes.com/gunranges