ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Gun safety on the firing range is second nature for most Soldiers, but some may not be aware that they may also be exposed to lead fumes and dust when training in live-fire shoot houses and on outdoor ranges. The Army Public Health Center is using National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, held Oct. 20-26, to provide some critical safety tips to help Soldiers avoid harmful exposure to lead dust following a trip to the range.
Research findings over the past decade have demonstrated adverse health risks associated with blood lead levels previously considered acceptable in the workplace, said Alice Weber, an APHC industrial hygienist and occupational health specialist.
Blood lead levels at low chronic levels are associated with elevated blood pressure, cardiovascular involvement, and possible kidney and subclinical neurocognitive deficits. Exposure can also lead to reproductive health risks.
"We know lead exposure not only affects Soldiers but can also pose a hazard to their families, especially children, if Soldiers carry lead dust home on their skin and clothing," said Weber.
In 2014, APHC experts collected thousands of air samples as part of a live-fire training study where lead-containing ammunition was used, said Weber. After advocating for the replacement of lead-containing ammunition, exposure sampling repeated in 2016 after lead-free rounds were implemented demonstrated a dramatic reduction (greater than 30-fold) in lead exposure.
Soldiers are exposed to lead by inhaling it into their lungs or ingesting it from contaminated skin surfaces, said Weber. They may experience elevated blood lead levels as a result of their exposure. If these levels remain elevated, the lead may be stored in the bone and remain there for years or decades. If blood lead levels are too high, personnel may be prevented from training, thus impacting Soldier readiness.
The Department of Defense has published DOD 6055.05-M Occupational Medical Surveillance Manual (Change 2, 2017), which adopts more protective medical standards for blood lead levels (more stringent than those required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to protect the health and well-being of soldiers and civilians exposed to lead.
Lead can be found in the primer and/or projectiles of small arms ammunition, and it is also contained in some propellant bags used for light artillery cartridges, said Weber. Rounds which are thought to be "green," such as the 855A1 Enhanced Performance Round, contain lead in the primer. Lead is also present in tactical devices such as flashbang grenades and explosive initiators.
"Soldiers must ask about specific ingredients of the ammunition and other devices they use to be certain they understand the associated risks of all the ingredients including lead," said Weber.
Weber recommended using specialized lead removal field wipes along with hand washing as the most effective method for removing potential lead contamination. The wipes are especially important on training ranges where soap and water are not available.
"Using two wipes on the hands and face in sequence is very effective for removing lead," said Weber.
The Army is actively working to remove lead from ammunition and other tactical devices where possible, but some lead exposure will likely be a continued risk for the foreseeable future. Soldiers can apply the following solutions to reduce and prevent potential lead exposure:
• Do not use tobacco products or eat while training on all ranges and while handling ammunition. Keep water container closed.
• Be vigilant about thoroughly cleaning hands and face prior to eating and at the end of training. Use lead removal skin wipes in addition to soap and water. Shower at the end of the day before going home.
• Consult with Industrial Hygienists to learn about more options such as the use of respiratory protection.
• After training, remove your uniform and boots before getting into a personally-owned vehicle. Store the items separately, such as in plastic bags. At home, wash your uniform separately.
• Ask about the availability of lead-free ammunition. A fully lead-free round currently approved for use is the M1037 (AB66), an 8.55-millimeter, short-range training ammunition.
• Contact your installation's Occupational Health medical provider if you are concerned about your health and your exposure to lead. Diagnosis of symptoms related to lead exposure is complex, so it is best to be evaluated by an Occupational Health medical professional.
More information on workplace lead exposure as well as information for military families can be found at https://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/workplacehealth/ih/Pages/Lead.aspx.
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.