Dangers Of Lead: Why You MUST Wash Your Hands After Range Day

A relaxing trip to the shooting range might not conjure up images of serious health issues in your mind. But, there’s a seldom-considered concern that we need to pay attention to. It’s called lead. Yeah, that stuff that they make bullets out of.

Lead poisoning doesn’t normally happen overnight; rather, it’s a process wherein lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health issues and very high levels can be fatal.

Once it’s in the body, lead can damage almost every organ system in the body. And, firing ranges can expose us to lead. 

The Firing Range

For some of us, the shooting range is an occupational environment that is an integral part of our job. I worked in law enforcement for close to three decades, and for much of that time, I was at the gun range. Because I was an instructor, I was there a lot.

Author on the sniper range.
Law enforcement and military personnel usually spend a lot of time at the range. Here, I am on the firing line, zeroing my Colt HBAR AR-15 as the cover weapon for the sniper team, circa 1994. We spent many days on the range. Fortunately, lead exposure on outdoor ranges is minimal. (Photo: Jim Davis)

Shooting might be a leisure hobby to escape the daily grind for others, or they might take their defensive training seriously.

Indoor ranges are far more likely to cause us to ingest lead because it’s an enclosed area. It’s paramount that an indoor range be properly ventilated.

I almost always use an outdoor range because there’s one close to where I live. Aside from convenience, there are advantages to the outdoor range, such as I can shoot any caliber firearm that I please. Most indoor ranges have restrictions on calibers because of the penetrative qualities of some rifles.

Shooting distances are also farther for outdoor ranges, which again is an advantage to rifles.

Ventilation is, without question, better at outdoor ranges. No one does it better than Mother Nature!

How are we exposed to lead at the shooting range?

When we fire weapons, airborne dust can come from ammunition that has lead in it. Many projectiles contain a lead core and a jacket (often copper). Sometimes there might be lead in the smoke when the weapon is fired. Lead particles can come out of the barrel, ejection port, and other places on the firearm. The lead particles float through the air, where we can breathe them in. Ejected bullet casings also spew lead particles everywhere as they head toward the ground.

close combat training at indoor range.
Indoor shooting ranges pose more of a lead hazard than outdoor ranges. Simple precautions negate most of the danger, however. (Photo: Jim Davis)

Indoor ranges often use bullet traps. When bullets hit those hard surfaces, they often create “splatter” which can introduce dust and pieces of lead into the air.

That dust also settles all around the range — on the shooting tables, shelves, and the floor. Basically, lead dust and residue can cover anything that’s lying around on the range. That includes food, cigarettes, drinks, and anything else you might have brought with you.

It also can saturate clothing that’s worn at the range, including shoes. The contaminated clothing can then be brought home, affecting other family members.

How To Mitigate Lead Exposure at the Range

Good preventative measures go a long way. As mentioned, proper ventilation is a must for indoor ranges. That gets a lot of the dust vented out before it even reaches shooters.

Don’t eat, drink, or smoke on the range.

Jacketed ammunition is preferred since the jacket encapsulates the lead. Lead bullets with no jacket cause more exposure to lead. Most shooters don’t realize that there is also lead in many of the primers that are used in ammunition.

Unjacketed lead bullets.
Bullets without jackets expose lead, which can be more of an issue. (Photo: DepositPhotos)

If casting lead bullets, do it in a well-ventilated area. Doing it in your home is not advisable.

After shooting or handling firearms, ammunition, or cleaning firearms, wash hands and forearms thoroughly. Do this before eating, drinking, or making physical contact with others.

Speaking of washing the body, consider that dust normally settles in the hair and on the skin, in addition to the clothing. Washing those areas will help cut down on exposure, even to other family members.

Before performing range maintenance or when cleaning the inside of a firing range, use a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA), respirators, and protective gear. Don’t dry sweep the floor, as that raises lead-containing dust into the air.

Hollow Point Boat Tail .308 rounds.
Using jacketed bullets helps keep lead exposures down. These are .308 Hollow Point Boat Tail Match rounds. (Photo: Jim Davis)

Change your clothing when leaving the range, and wash it separately when you get home.

If you’re regularly exposed to lead, it may be a good idea to have your blood levels tested by medical professionals occasionally to ensure that you’re not experiencing a build up of lead.

Naturally, keep all ammunition out of the reach of children, both for safety reasons and also to prevent lead exposures.

Outdoor Ranges

For outdoor ranges, it’s not as likely that we’re going to be covered head-to-toe with lead dust residue. That said, it’s still not a bad idea to take precautions, especially if you have young children. Wash your clothing separately and keep it away from the kids.

man firing Marlin 336.
Outdoor ranges pose a far lower lead hazard because of their open nature. (Photo: Jeremy Charles)

Signs & Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

There is an expansive list of signs and symptoms of lead poisoning for children and adults who are being affected by lead poisoning.


  • Developmental delay.
  • Learning difficulties.
  • Irritability.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Sluggishness and fatigue.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • Constipation.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Seizures.


  • High blood pressure.
  • Joint and muscle pain.
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Headache.
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature birth in pregnant women.
  • Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm.

Young children absorb lead more easily, and it’s more harmful to them than it is to older children and adults. The greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage can occur.

High lead levels can cause damage to the nervous system and kidneys in both children and adults.

Other Resources

Aside from this article, you may wish to delve further into the effects of lead poisoning and how to prevent it.

Here are a few resources:

  • US Dept. of Labor, OSHA: osha.gov/SLTC/lead.
  • Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, National Institute For Occupational Safety And Health: cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead.
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): epa.gov/lead/best-management-practices-lead-outdoor-shooting-ranges.

Parting Shots

With just a little effort and forethought, range trips can be conducted quite safely. We don’t need to be paranoid about lead to be safe from its effects.

Make sure you choose a well-ventilated range and take the other simple steps outlined above. Keep contaminated clothing separate from family members, especially small children.

And above all…enjoy your range experience safely!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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