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OPINION

Another harm from guns: lead exposure

Over half a million children in the US have elevated levels of lead in their bodies, despite decades of prevention efforts. Largely overlooked, guns play a role.

Lead is the most common substance used for bullets and primers (bullet-propellant).George Frey/Bloomberg

Lead is dangerous and lingers for centuries in the environment. Various US agencies have targeted and addressed lead exposure. In 1978, the federal government banned lead paint. In 1996, it banned leaded gasoline. While lead in water remains a threat in some communities, such as the case in Flint, Mich., commitments have been made to address it. But over half a million children in the United States have elevated levels of lead in their bodies, despite decades of prevention efforts.

Largely overlooked, guns play a role.

In the United States, lead is the most common substance used for bullets and primers (bullet propellant). And there is evidence that links the lead in guns to lead in people who use them and their families.

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Lead in firearms used in hunting contributes to high blood lead levels in hunters and their families when they consume the meat, and to the local flora and fauna through deposits in plants and water. Their use at firing ranges has led to excessively high blood lead levels in employees and attendees.

The federal government has long known about the firearm-lead connection. A report published in 1996 found that the dorm rooms at Quantico of FBI students who attended firing ranges had 11 times the amount of lead as non-student dorms. But even the nonstudents weren’t spared — lead, which lingers for over 700 years in the environment, was found in shared spaces.

So it’s no surprise that firearm ownership is linked to lead exposure in children. Research in Massachusetts conducted by one of us found that the percentage of adults with firearm licenses in every city and town is strongly related to the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels, a close second to lead paint. After accounting for other risk factors, children in high gun-licensed communities were twice as likely to have elevated lead levels compared with their peers in lower-licensed communities.

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This means that licensure is a greater contributor to elevated blood lead levels in children when compared to water and lead-related occupations, like construction worker or hunters. However, there was a strong relationship between firearm ownership and these occupations. This could mean the presence of firearms in a community, previously undocumented due to restrictions on firearm research funding, could be one of the reasons certain factors like occupation and income are historically related to lead exposure.

Children can be exposed to lead through inhalation, ingestion, and even secondary exposures through breast milk. Decades of evidence indicate children who have a single exposure can suffer mental and physical problems their entire lives. Their developing brains are easily damaged; lead exposure can bring repeated seizures, slowed growth, behavioral problems, and hearing loss. They can develop headaches and anemia before turning five. In the worst cases, exposures can lead to coma or sudden death.

Any amount of lead exposure for children is considered dangerous. However, monitoring and tracking severity is important. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects all testing data in the United States and calculates the highest percentage of values (the 97.5th percentile) every four years. This value, currently 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, becomes the “reference” point for involvement. In Massachusetts, this is set at 5 micrograms per deciliter.

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Adults are also at risk, albeit lower. Yet, even for them, exposure can bring sterilization and early death.

So, what’s to be done?

First, public health officials and gun advocacy organizations need to increase awareness of lead exposure. People should know the risks to them and those in their community.

Second, people should know the safety rules. They are relatively simple, but not routinely followed. Don’t handle any personal items when you use or clean a gun. Even a cellphone can pick up big doses of lead. After use, change your clothes in a controlled environment and clean them using HEPA vacuums before washing. Reviews have found that using firearms leads to deposits of lead on the hands and clothing of those who use them, which can be invisible to the naked eye. For hunters and police officers, all measures must be taken to avoid hand to mouth contact. Avoid walking on carpets after using a firearm, as they become “reservoirs” of lead.

Finally, states should decrease dependence on lead for bullets and primers. We have the technology; lead-free ammunition has been adopted by many in the firearm community. About 30 states regulate lead shot for hunting, while California completely banned lead primers and ammunition in 2019. Overseas, Britain implemented a voluntary five-year phase-out while the European Union proposed a ban going into effect by 2023.

We’ve targeted and addressed lead exposure in paint, gasoline, and water because of its danger. So too must we commit to banning lead from gun use. It’s too dangerous not to.

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Christian Hoover is co-investigator with the Firearm Exposure Research Team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a member of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Austin Frakt is director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the Veterans Administration Boston Healthcare System, associate professor with Boston University’s School of Public Health, and a senior research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.