Explaining why the risks of lead poisoning from shooting guns is greatly exaggerated

21 Oct , 2014  

This quote is part of a long piece that Thinkprogress.org had on the risks of lead poisoning.

. . . John R. Lott is founder and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a tax-exempt organization that works to “advance the scientific understanding of the relationship between laws regulating the ownership or use of guns, crime, and public safety.” His works include “More Guns, Less Crime” and “The Bias Against Guns,” and he has written several opinion pieces to the conservative Daily Caller. Lott told ThinkProgress that he does not believe lead bullets pose real safety threats. “The only possible claims that I have seen with respect to lead poisoning is if people actually eat the lead pellets from shotgun shells. Even then,” he argued, the levels would be “so far below any plausible health standards that it is hard to see anyone taking them as credible risks.”

Lott also claimed that “even the Clinton administration dismissed concerns about lead poisoning from bullets.” He pointed to a pair of letters written in 1999 and 2000 by Dr. William L. Marcus, then-senior science adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. In those letters, Marcus wrote that the “assertion that the use of lead based ammunition is hazardous is in error,” as studies of adult shooters at outdoor ranges have not shown increased blood lead levels and those shooting at “indoor properly ventilated firing ranges have shown no increases in blood lead levels.” He also wrote that “Indoor ranges when cleaned using prescribed protocols have shown no increases in the blood lead levels of range personnel,” and claimed lead “does not pose an environmental threat when used in ammunition.” Subsequent EPA documents do not take that view and a CDC examination of shooting range employees, their families, and range customers found unsafe elevations in lead levels in their blood.

Given this skepticism of the underlying safety risks of lead, Lott worries that OSHA’s regulations are just “another excuse to restrict gun ownership.” “I find the claims that OSHA regulations are being used to put gun ranges out of business credible,” he added. . . .

As noted in the above quote, one claim made in a 2008 CDC study concerns the risks of lead poisoning from meat obtained through hunting.  An Associated Press story noted:

A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Public Health concluded with a recommendation that lead is so prevalent in meat harvested through hunting that pregnant women and children should never eat it.  Gun supporters say that those studies have never conclusively linked consumption with illness in humans. . . .

But if you look at the North Dakota study, you will find this:

The lead levels among study participants ranged from none detectable to 9.82 micrograms perdeciliter. . . 

No attempt was made to account for other sources of lead poisoning and obviously there are multiple sources of lead in the environment (the mean level of lead in the blood in the US is 3 micrograms, not zero).  In addition, the highest level of lead in the blood for one of the 738 people sampled in the North Dakota study was less that what the government defines as elevated even for children.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around our homes.  An elevated blood lead level in a child is defined as 10 or more micrograms of lead in a deciliter (μg/dL) of blood. . . . Children are more vulnerable to lead than adults.  While all children are at risk from lead, children living in older housing and in poverty are at the greatest risk.  Children who eat paint chips or breathe dust from flaking or peeling lead-based paint are the most likely to develop a problem.  Children may also develop high blood lead levels by drinking water contaminated with lead that may be in the plumbing system or by being exposed to contaminated soil or other lead hazards. . . . .

 From the New York Health Department these are the numbers for adults.

It is hard to look at these numbers from the North Dakota study and view even the highest level of lead found as a danger, and there is no reason to believe that outlier is a result of hunting.  It seems likely that in the US as a whole more than 1 out of every 738 people have lead levels equal to or above the highest person in this sample.  Take Detroit.  In 2012, apparently 2,900 children under age 18 had lead poisoning.  With about 186,500 children under age 18, that implies a poisoning rate of 1.6% (down 70% from what it was just in 2004).  Given that the North Dakota data doesn’t have anyone reaching the lead poisoning rates found in Detroit and that only 0.136% even reach 9.82 micrograms, Detroit has much more to be concerned about.  (Note that I am making the assumption here that the Scientific American article on poisoning means those under age 18 when it mentions “kids.”  If in fact that refers to younger ages, the poisoning rate would be substantially higher.)

A similar Minnesota study that was done at the same time found: “As a result, the Minnesota DNR conducted the first-of-its-kind lead fragmentation study to simulate how different types of bullets commonly used for deer hunting might fragment.”

See more on the general issue here.

[Correction to the Thinkprogress.org piece: Thinkprogress.org should have noted that one of the links above actually shows three letters by Dr. Marcus.]

UPDATE: On December 23th, 2014, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that environmental groups have not explained under what authority the EPA could regulate spent lead bullets and shot without also regulating cartridges and shells.  The problem is that the Toxic Substances Control Act exempts cartridges and shells from regulation.


4 Responses

  1. […] is the source of that lead contamination.  It is a harder sell than you might think because the subject was studied before.  Doctor John Lott recently pointed out where the Clinton administration dismissed concerns about […]

  2. Roy Peter says:

    Awesome content written on lead poisoning from shooting guns. Thank you for the wonderful information!

  3. […] the risks from lead ammunition are very misleading (a discussion of that scientific evidence is available here).  Fortunately, the new federal budget will prevent new Obama administration rules from […]

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