Monday, April 30, 2012

We Deal In Lead Friend - Reloading, Lead and You

Reloading sure beats waiting in line at the store hoping that they have one more box of your favorite ammo. After the last election you could hardly FIND ammo around, let alone primers. Those days could happen again.

But with the technical aspects of it, there are safety aspects. And that is lead. Lead was around long before there was OSHA and your Mom telling you not to hang around guys that  drove Mustangs or played guitars in bands. But there is no sugar coating it - lead dust and vapors during the casting process are poisonous in high amounts. Mankind developed in an environment that has always contained lead in some form.. It would follow we have some tolerance for it so a brief exposure isn't going to kill you.  However, once ingested, the body does not naturally get rid of lead like a bad burrito. Though some of it might be secreted out in urine or bile (the elimination rate depending on the tissue that absorbed it) most remains in your body. The side effects and health risks of long term, unchecked high exposure are NOT good.

"I hear it interferes with the absorbtion of Bacon!

Most lead stays in the body storing it up (chemically similar to how calcium is stored), at high doses causing developmental and brain issues in children where the effects are manifold and include delayed or reverse development, permanent learning disabilities, seizures. In adults add in renal and neurological damage, death and voting Democratic.

In Scientist speak
: Lead perturbs multiple enzyme systems. As in most heavy metals, any ligand with sulfhydryl groups is vulnerable. Perhaps the best-known effect is that on the production of heme. Lead interferes with the critical phases of the dehydration of aminolevulinic acid and the incorporation of iron into the protoporphyrin molecule; the result is a decrease in heme production. Because heme is essential for cellular oxidation, deficiencies have far-reaching effects.

In Plain Language speak: Bad juju. BAD.

I'm NOT saying that by reloading and shooting you will get lead poisoning and cases in the U.S. are rare.  However it is still something that is harmful that you don't want in your body if you can help it and especially important if you have youngsters in the household who might be exposed to it.  (as  kids we liked the lead paint better than the latex stuff, it tasted  *twitch* so much better *twitch*)

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. Trust me folks, you don't ever want to go through chelation, it's painfully slow, expensive and saps the very life out of you. It's the medical equivalent of having to watch an entire season of Jersey Shore.

Even if you don't do your own casting, certain reloading components contain lead or lead compounds and it's possible to have some exposure during reloading. Primers and bullets both contain lead, and the lead residue is present in fired cartridge cases.

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 biggest avenue for ingestion is through the nose and mouth.

Precautions are simple.

Yes, that's a body fluid clean up kit.  But you don't need one of these for precautions (and I'd recommend against dropping it in front of the neighbors as  you get your mail they will look at you funny after that)

(1) Wash hands thoroughly with soap and cool to warm water as soon as you finish loading or shooting (hot water just opens the pores, possibly allowing for more absorption).

The type of soap is less important than the temperature of the water and how long you wash. I scrub like I was preparing for a lab, thoroughly, with lots of running water, lathering up over my wrists and lower arms where the skin may have been exposed by a sleeve riding up when firing.

At the shooting range, I take some baby wipes and if I'm shooting a lot of rounds, periodically wipe my hands clean with them (I wear long sleeves rain or shine for shooting) storing the soiled cleaning cloth in a ziplock that is then sealed and thrown out.

At home at the bench you can also wear latex or nitrile gloves for extra protection if you wish to be extra cautious. I don't, but simply wash my hands thoroughly after reloading.

(2) Wash your shooting clothes separate from the rest of your clothing, especially if you have small children. Run a empty load after if you can. Leave your range shoes in the garage or outside, tracking that in the house simply sets up lead to be blown around by the vacuum cleaner so all household members would not have that exposure, even if negligible.

(3) Never eat or drink while reloading. The biggest risk of lead poisoning is through ingestion. You might get more than you bargained for with your snack. Keep your fingers out of your mouth (there's a reason none of those sexy movie scenes where they feed each other strawberries never occur at the hero's reloading bench). Don't smoke, pop in a piece of gum or chew tobacco while reloading. Don't hum show tunes or yodel while reloading., It has no bearing on lead exposure but it IS annoying to anyone else in range.

(4) Primers are gradually becoming lead-free, but many of them still contain lead, and many shooters and reloaders do not consider that new and spent primers are a potential source of lead contamination. So use the same safety precautions when handling primers - good hygiene, avoiding inhaling any dust. Note: When reloading, the yellow dust you might find in the priming station is a toxic lead compound. Clean the effected parts and equipment with a disposable towel dampened with a good cleaner and then properly discard of the towel. Don't' even consider using a can of compressed gas to blow off the dust like you would on a computer board. It will just become airborne where it can be inhaled and/or settle back on another surface as a contaminate.

(5) Avoid breathing dust in the reloading area. Wear a dust mask when working with dry case cleaning media. As a general rule ,all dust is not good for you (even pine wood dust) and metal dust is badder, heavy metal dust is real badder. Metal vapor is never good either, think of it as VERY fine biologically active dust.

If working indoors you might want to consider a home/garage fume hood.  I'm not sure if there are DIY instructions on the Net but I bet you could make one with some sheet metal, plywood, some ducting and a computer muffin fan, vented through a HEPA filter, on some raindy Sunday afternoon.

Around friends who reload with me,  the sound of a tumbler filled with mildly abrasive medium churning away is a common sound. 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. But they can become airborne just waiting to be inhaled when sifting brass to separate it from the cleaning media. Most people don't think about lead contamination when cleaning brass. One trick to collect the fine black dust that's generated during vibratory bowl cleaning is to place a used dryer sheet in there which will grab a lot of it and then can be disposed of.

(6) When the cleaning media starts to get gray it's time to replace it. Don't sift it through an open colander to separate the cleaning media, use a covered rotating basket style separator and 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. Lead residue from fired cases builds up with use. Wear a dust mask when pouring the media into and out of a case cleaner. A general wipe down of your reloading equipment will suffice between uses.

(7) Keeping the loading area itself clean. It might be cluttered but make sure the surfaces are cleaned regularly with a damp cloth. Damp moping the floor around it is the preferred method of clean up, I use those Swiffer type mop clothes, and then remove them with a paper towel that gets discarded with the used cleaning cloth.

If you setting up a new reloading area, and have some choices, avoid one with carpet. Carpet is a static electricity hazard as well as just being harder to effectively clean. If your reloading area is carpeted buy one of those big plastic easy to clean, mats that people use in their cubicles and place that under your work area.

At the range:

(8) If you pick up brass put it in its own bag, don't put in pockets of your clothing which will only contaminate your clothes.

(9) See rule no. 3. No eating or drinking (which actually is Zombieland rule No. 24) if you can help it. If you need a bottle of water (or two)  at an outdoor range on a hot day, simply wash your hands before and after if handling the cap. Also avoid ANY contact with Pirates Booty, a dangerous substance especially if you have only one bag and two people.

Some General Notes on Indoor Ranges:

The lead vapor created in firing a handgun has multiple sources: the action of hot propellant gases against the lead base of the bullet, the friction of the bullet against the barrel itself, and the combustion of lead contained within priming compounds. Numerous studies have shown that shooters, safety officers and others in the shooting area at ranges frequently have elevated blood lead levels caused both by inhaling lead vapor and by inadequate personal hygiene prior to smoking and/or eating.

The air in the range should not be reused or, if reused, it should be filtered. Remember, if there’s a constant cloud of “gunsmoke” and you can taste the sweetish metallic taste of lead in the air it’s time to go shoot elsewhere. If you don't see the smoke or taste that but leave with a sore throat you might wish to speak to the owner about the ventilation if you can do so.

Lead removal from a firearm is a separate matter and is something I've written of before. But for those new to reloading, just some simple precautions, simple steps.

But don't let these simple rules scare you, lead poisoning itself in the United States among shooters and non shooters alike, is rare, but you still should take precautions. With simple hygiene and habits, your risk of exposure is quite negligible. If you know the hazards you can control the hazards. Taking simple precautions to avoid lead exposure should be an essential part of your shooting safety knowledge and practice.

 - Brigid


  1. Hm. This is somewhat distressing to read because, as a Floridian, my choices when shooting are:

    1) Use only indoor ranges, which means I can't shoot my rifles

    2) Don't drink, and risk heatstroke/dehydration during the summer

    3) Stay hydrated and risk ingesting lead.

    I currently use a Camelbak that I drink from when the range goes cold, but if that's a health risk then I don't know what do to other than "Not shoot at the outdoor range during the summer & fall."

  2. Erin - I didn't say don't drink if outside, I said if you do drink wash your hands before and after handling the bottle. I go through a lot of water outdoors as I'm pale and do NOT do well in the sun.

    Wet wipes will work to clean up if there's not a plash to wash at the clubhouse. I wouldn't get heatstroke over not having a drink, just keep your hands and the bottle as clean as possible.

    But you're getting out there, that's the key to it all :-)

  3. All good points. Wet rotary tumbling is an alternative (Thumbler). 3M P100 filters are good, albeit Darth-like.

  4. Yeah, you write funny, but... I had never considered lead poisoning as a function of reloading, since I don't cast lead. While I haven't gotten into it too much, yet, waiting for the purchase of a chronograph, I do have a friend who is ill quite often. He has been reloading for years, and, like me, took no such precautions. I would sort of like to keep him on his feet for another decade or two. Being ill often for our various reasons, sometimes all we have is each other. Besides, he is a good bean, mostly. :p I am going to ask him to have his lead level checked. Some things just sound... a bit too... familiar... or coincidental... regarding some of his odd complaints. Lead poisoning won't be all of his problem, if it is part of it, but...

    Thanks a bunch.

  5. No no, I failed to make my point.

    I use a Camelbak with bite valve, because it's handy and because I can schlep 3 liters of water to the range. I'm assuming that aerosolized lead from all the shooting is likely to get on the bite valve -- is this correct?

  6. All good pointers, especially to a newbie like me. I have not gotten into shooting yet. Still in the rock and sling shot stage of life.

  7. Very good advice, and much more pleasent than the 4 hour 'Lead' Class I had to sit through at work.

    Not into reloading yet(every time I have to try to find/buy .35 Whelen Ammo, I regret that decision) but I follow most of what you say in regards to 'shooting cleanliness'. The only thing I never really thought of was washing my shooting clothes apart from other things...

  8. One task I perform outside is scrubbing lead deposits out of a barrel using a Tornado brush.

  9. One task I perform outside is scrubbing lead deposits out of a barrel using a Tornado brush.

  10. Well, good points and excellent points all written with the same knowledge and humor one becomes accustomed to here.

    Yes I shoot and gasp, drink something during shooting and reload as well. I do not cast lead, and that to me is the biggie.

    Sweep down the indoor range? Check. Do I have a respirator on? Check.

    I use ultra sonic methods to clean brass. I find it much more agreeable on many levels than traditional dry media.

  11. Kirk A - you've given me some amazing pointers via email. So thanks.

    Erin - sorry, I was thinking you were worried about the bottles. You're good. When using any water trasnport system, I either wash my hands before and after (or use a bunch of wipes) or just use a clean wet nap to open the spout or lid and return.

    If you're ever in the central IND area, we'd love to have you join us for plinking. It would be an honor.

    Rob - I'm a newbie. I won't pretend to be otherwise. I shotgunned and hunted but I didn't pick up my first pistol until I was mid 30's and changing careers. I'm still learning and not afraid to admit it. Glad I could offer some advice.

    greg - I started the washing separate when I was staying with friends during my home sale/open houses, who had little ones around. I'd not thought of it before.

    Jerry - good idea!

    Keads - from you, with your abilities, I appreciate the compliment.

  12. What excellently useful information. I do not re-load, but have a number of pals who do. In addition, the metalworking that I do includes traditional enameling which involves working with powdered glass, some of which contains lead. I use careful cleaning in my own shop space, and have a rule about no eating or drinking for myself and my occasional students.

  13. Brigid,

    Forty-plus year reloader (actually, HANDloader) here and longtime caster.

    Lead fumes from casting do not occur until the alloy reaches temperatures exceeding approximately 1050F--by that time, you've pretty much hosed your alloy in terms of oxidizing tin content.

    Secondly, not too many available furnaces will actually get up to and hold that temp accidentally--you really have to neglect what you're doing. Being neglectful in ANY aspect of the reloading or casting world is a recipe for disaster.

    The single biggest risk for any shooter, reloader or not, for lead exposure is poorly ventilated indoor ranges. This is not due so much to lead bullets, but the lead styphenate compound in primers.

    One winter, my lead levels reached the high-teens and my doc wasn't happy. I'd been shooting excessively at an indoor range (it was actually colder than hell here in Texas that winter).

    I gave up all shooting for six months, but did not change my reloading or casting routines a bit. I upped the vitamin C intake considerably, along with the water intake.

    Eight months later, my lead levels were back down into the mid/high single-digits.

    As reloaders, cleanliness IS godliness so far as our personal health is concerned. You're spot on about not eating/drinking/et al while handling dirty compounds associated with reloading or firearms without FIRST thoroughly washing your hands.

    Take it a step further and also wipe down your face and especially around your mouth as well--anything residual will be wiped away.

    Get those boxes of disposable vinyl gloves to wear when sorting your brass out for the tumbler. If possible, put your tumbler outside. If not possible, rig a cover for it or set it inside a large cardboard box where the dust can be contained.

    I have a Thumler's Tumbler (rotary self-enclosed tumbler) and am going to the wet media (stainless steel pins) which will further reduce my exposure to the lead styphenate in the empty brass.

    If I have a long session of reloading for say my .45s or .38 Specials (which are exclusively lead bullets), I'll even wear a vinyl glove on my left hand (the one that grabs the bullet and seats it in the powder-charged brass). This reminds me to NOT use that hand to put anything in/near my mouth.

    I hang out over at Cast Boolits and the folks over there have lots of good advice about limiting your lead exposure and risk--and not just for casting bullets, but for reloading them as well.



  14. I wonder how much lead I ingested when as a kid using my teeth to close a lead split shot on a fishing line....maybe that explains some things?

    Also I wonder if there has been any issues/studies with people that have done tons of shooting whether practicing for and competing in competitions or just out at the range/back 40 a bunch?

  15. Thanks Brigid! As an RN and someone involved in Appleseed, I harp on washing hands before drinking and eating to all the participants. It's nice to have some back-up! And as much as I hate antibacterial wipes in general, I always have some in my range bag. Enough to share!

  16. Brigid,

    So, I am NOT supposed to lick my hands clean after re-loading? That may explain some things...twitch...twitch....


  17. Excellent info however you have me thinking I need to change the way I handle lead, I have been casting bullets for years and am not generally too careful.

  18. Ok, now you're just sounding like a girl trying to spoil all my fun. (seriously, good advice).

  19. I especially like the tip about the baby wipes. I use that one myself.

  20. Hello out there! I've been handloading, from scrounging lead wheelweights (the new ones are mandated zinc) to proving ammo for police departments and community colleges with law enforcement classes- I'd hate to think how much lead I've handled, but my first teacher imparted something to me that i pass on to shooters and reloaders alike: before you participate, put hand lotion on as a barrier, from fingertips to elbows, get the face, neck areas, too. Wash it all off with hot soapy water when you get done, dry thoroughly, then reapply, as some may leach out of the nails, nooks and crannies of the ears, etc. Our 3 sons helped me sort cast bullets to "help Daddy out" when they were 3-4 years old, and got the same treatment with yucky-tasting lotion, such as would be used on a cow's teats, to remind not to put hands to face. Their pediatrician was on board, and their levels were lower than the city kids, where chewing windowsills, old plumbing, etc. were problems. Hope this helps the new and the parents!


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