Loaded With Lead
Lead poisoning is a major threat at America’s shooting ranges, perpetuated by owners who’ve repeatedly violated laws even after workers have fallen painfully ill.
A Seattle Times Investigation by By CHRISTINE WILLMSEN, LEWIS KAMB and JUSTIN MAYO OCT. 17, 2014
A confused 38-year-old father in Kentucky rarely crawled out of bed.
A conservation volunteer in Iowa lost feeling in his hands and feet.
A 5-year-old girl in South King County doubled over in pain and vomited.
The cause of their suffering: lead poisoning. The source: dirty gun ranges.
Indoor and outdoor, public and private, gun ranges dot the national landscape like bullet holes riddling a paper target, as the popularity of shooting has rocketed to new heights with an estimated 40 million recreational shooters annually.
But a hidden risk lies within almost all of America’s estimated 10,000 gun ranges. When shooters fire guns with lead-based ammunition, they spread lead vapor and dust, insidious toxins.
Thousands of people, including workers, shooters and their family members, have been contaminated at shooting ranges due to poor ventilation and contact with lead-coated surfaces, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
Those most at risk are employees who work around firearms, unknowingly inhaling lead-tinged dust and fumes as they instruct customers and clean shooting ranges of spent ammunition. Lead exposure can cause an array of health problems — from nausea and fatigue to organ damage, mental impairment and even death.
Even those who’ve never stepped inside a gun range have become sick. Employees have carried lead residue into their homes on their skin, clothes, shoes and work gear, inadvertently contaminating family members, including children, who are the most vulnerable to lead’s debilitating health effects.
For the public, shooting firearms is the most common way of getting lead poisoning outside of work, according to national statistics.
Through documents, interviews and a first-of-its-kind analysis of occupational lead-monitoring data, The Times has found reckless shooting-range owners who’ve repeatedly violated workplace-safety laws with no regard for workers who became sick. Other owners and operators were ignorant of the dangers posed by lead.
By law, owners are responsible for protecting employees from lead-polluted workplaces by following rules and regulations on air quality, surface contamination, safety gear and various other standards. Yet state and federal regulators are doing little to make certain gun ranges put such protections in place.
The nation has an estimated 6,000 commercial indoor and outdoor gun ranges, but only 201 have been inspected in the past decade, according to a Times analysis of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records. Of those inspected, 86 percent violated at least one lead-related standard, the analysis found.
Places like Manchester Firing Line Range in New Hampshire, Target World in Ohio, Top Brass Sports in Tennessee and the Sharp Shooter in Texas each had more than 20 lead-related violations.
Of the 10 commercial ranges inspected in Washington, nine had at least one lead violation.
OSHA typically doesn’t examine a gun range unless it receives a blood-test report that shows an employee already has been overexposed to lead or unless someone complains. In states such as Washington and California, authorities knew about workers with severe lead poisoning, but failed to inspect the shooting ranges that employed them.
In 14 states, federal and state occupational agencies didn’t inspect a single commercial gun range from 2004 to 2013, an analysis of OSHA records found.
When caught, gun-range owners face few consequences for failing to protect their workers. Fines are reduced. And owners are allowed to keep ranges open while appealing their cases, which can take several years and put employees and customers at continued risk.
Washington state and federal workplace regulators have the power to temporarily close a lead-polluted shooting range to protect workers from exposure to high amounts of lead, but have never done so.
Several thousand other indoor and outdoor gun ranges in America — most of them casually operated by volunteer-led clubs and sports organizations with little knowledge of lead safety — don’t even have to follow OSHA regulations. They aren’t subject to any scrutiny because they have no employees.
Publicly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) dismisses contentions by health officials that lead is a widespread health and safety problem at shooting ranges. “The issue of lead problems for indoor ranges is extremely rare,” said Susan Recce, an NRA official. To their members, the lobbying group encourages owners to clean up their ranges to avoid inviting government scrutiny.
But research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which analyzes occupational hazards for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows lead is a hidden danger.
Lead exposure at gun ranges is “a serious problem and we think it could be quite widespread,” said Dr. Elana Page, medical officer for NIOSH.
The risk isn’t limited to range employees, Page added.
“Some firing ranges cater to children, they have birthday parties and special events,” she said. “I think it’s really important that people are aware they can have significant exposure at a firing range, even for members of the general public.”
The problem of lead exposure need not be part of the debate raging over gun rights in America, said Kentucky firearms instructor Colleene Barnett, who suffered from lead poisoning.
“We need people to educate folks,” she said. “The last thing you need is to stop shooting — and for people to hold lead against shooting as a sport.”
A heavy diagnosis
James Maddox, a former gun-range manager in Kentucky, talks about himself as two different men: the jovial, hardworking man before lead poisoning, and the reclusive, weakened man after.
“I wish I could just show you guys the type of person I was,” he said, with tears streaming down his face.
For about a year starting in 2006, Maddox and his wife worked at Bluegrass Indoor Range in Louisville.
Like many shooting-range workers, Maddox knew little about lead and its damaging capabilities. Daily, he inhaled airborne lead while managing the range and gun shop. Nightly, he swept up casings from spent ammunition in the 12 firing lanes, pushing a broom and kicking up more lead dust. The toxin landed on his skin and sank into his pores. Every breath pushed the poison further into his lungs, blood and bones.
He complained to owner Winfield Underwood that catch bins at the end of shooting lanes were overflowing with spent lead bullets, the ventilation system didn’t work and workers needed protective gear. Inspectors later discovered the air vents didn’t even have filters.
“It was just circulating the lead air,” said Maddox, who earned $9 an hour.
After working at the Louisville range about six months, Maddox, a hefty 38-year-old man, dropped 180 pounds. He also lost sensation in his fingers and toes. His head throbbed, his thinking slowed and he couldn’t remember birthdays. He had no sex drive.
“It just feels like someone unplugged me from the wall and I just lost all my power,” he said.
His doctor’s diagnosis: lead poisoning from the gun range.
A February 2007 blood test showed he had a dangerous level of lead with 68 micrograms per deciliter — more than 56 times the average adult level of 1.2. “Your organs could start shutting down,” he recalled his doctor telling him.
The CDC states lead causes health problems like organ damage at as low as 10 micrograms, though symptoms rarely appear.
But OSHA’s 36-year-old regulations say employees can have up to six times that amount of lead in their blood before being removed from the work area. The Times found many employees who’d already suffered significant health problems before reaching that threshold.
Despite the CDC’s concern, OSHA has yet to adopt more stringent lead regulations to protect workers.
“OSHA recognizes that exposure to lead is a significant hazard and that our lead standard is outdated,” said David Michaels, an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor. Changing the standard, he added, is highly complex and can take more than seven years.
Maddox, who spent several weeks in bed, returned to work after he assumed Underwood had fixed the lead problems. But when Maddox found not much had changed, he started to alert pregnant women and kids they shouldn’t enter the range because of lead exposure.
Maddox’s wife, who worked throughout the business, also developed elevated levels of lead. They both had enough and quit.
“You claimed to care so much for me and my family and you did NOTHING to protect us from this or even try to resolve any further exposure or supply us with the proper safety equipment,” Maddox wrote in his April 2007 resignation letter.
He has advice for range workers: “Educate yourself and know the risks — it’s not just bullets you need to watch out for.”
Underwood, of Lexington, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Kentucky Labor Cabinet, the state’s workplace-safety agency, inspected Underwood’s range several times and determined that he had overexposed his employees to lead on a daily basis. The agency hit him with dozens of violations and $461,400 in fines, the highest total amount imposed against a U.S. gun range in the past decade.
But in a later settlement with Underwood, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet lowered the fine to $7,200 because of “financial hardship.”
As with other industries, OSHA and state occupational agencies often reduce fines for gun-range owners, sometimes because they are cooperative or they show an inability to pay. Nationally, the agencies initially fined gun ranges a total of almost $2 million for violations in the past decade, but reduced it to less than half that amount. For ranges that were fined, OSHA reduced the amounts in two out of every three inspections, a Times analysis found.
In the Bluegrass case, Underwood paid the fine in 2012. But he didn’t fix all the lead violations, which dated to 2007. Under federal and state law, he didn’t have to because he filed an appeal.
Even though blood tests and sampling of air and surfaces show dire hazards and widespread lead contamination, shooting ranges can avoid costly cleanups and paying fines until the administrative appeal is resolved.
During 2010 congressional testimony, Michaels said the appeal process is flawed, pointing to 33 cases in which workers in various industries died while employers contested violations and fines.
“The only situation worse than a worker being injured or killed on the job by a senseless and preventable hazard is having a second worker felled by the same hazard,” Michaels said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other lawmakers proposed bills in 2013 to require abatement of serious hazards during an appeal, but the bills are languishing in committees.
Evan Satterwhite, director of Kentucky’s occupational safety and health compliance at the time, said “it’s not something we like,” but he could do little while Underwood’s appeal dragged on.
“We’re all for the Second Amendment, but he was deceiving employees while exposing them to an unhealthy chemical,” Satterwhite said.
Trouble from the start in Kent
From the moment the doors opened at the new Champion Arms indoor shooting range in Kent, in October 2005, co-owner Steve Wangsness knew airborne lead was going to be a problem, Washington state records show.
The ventilation system specifically designed for the custom-built, 10-lane range was supposed to push air containing lead dust and bullet fragments away from shooters. Filtered vents at the back of the range were then expected to suck the bad air out of the building.
But the exhaust system didn’t work. Instead, it blew toxic dust clouds back on unwitting shooters — and into the retail areas of the business, where workers spent most of their day.
“This system was so screwed up, it’s remarkable they could have gotten the doors actually locked at night,” Cheryl Christian, a state Labor and Industries expert on lead issues, would later remark. “…It would have been a wind tunnel out the front door in the wrong direction.”
Wangsness and co-owner Maria Geiss sparred with the building’s landlord over the faulty system, eventually filing a lawsuit. Still, they kept Champion Arms open for business, exposing their employees, customers and an on-site resident to the dirty gun range.
In December 2005, an unpaid gunsmith and maintenance worker living at the range got his blood checked and found high levels of lead. Triggered by a complaint, an L&I inspector showed up in July 2006 to investigate.
Air sampling showed Champion Arms workers were being exposed to airborne lead above safe standards. Using testing wipes that measure lead on surfaces, the inspector also found lead dust more than 115 times the recommended amounts on a soft-drink machine. Lead also contaminated the employee conference table and the floor of a shooting booth.
L&I learned the range’s owners had no training about safe range operations. One of the owners even used a leaf blower to clean up, and the range employed a pregnant worker. Women can have miscarriages when overexposed to lead.
The inspector cited Champion Arms for 15 violations, 13 of them deemed serious, meaning they posed a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers. Fearing Champion Arms would put workers and the public at risk if it stayed open, officials with L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) debated whether to shut it down. They could issue an “order and notice of immediate restraint” that forces a business to close until it fixes its problems.
DOSH has issued more than 150 such orders since September 2004, though never for a gun range.
“This is the worse (sic) indoor firing range DOSH has investigated certainly recently and potentially ever,” Christian wrote later in an email to a state lawyer.
But L&I management decided not to close it and couldn’t explain why.
“As a public range with the potential for underage kids using it in addition to adults, in retrospect I wonder at that decision,” Christian’s email said.
In all, Champion’s violations could have resulted in fines up to $31,500. But L&I fined it only $11,200, cutting the owners a break in part for being cooperative.
But the owners stopped the clock when they contested the violations to the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, as is their right. Meanwhile, the range stayed open to the public.
Finally, in October 2007, Champion Arms agreed to the state’s violations and penalties. The range was placed on a six-month payment plan for the fines and promised to fix any outstanding violations in 15 days.
L&I allows businesses to essentially police themselves by submitting an “Employer Certification of Hazards Corrected” form.
Several months after the settlement, Geiss declared in writing that all violations had been fixed. By then, the range already had missed payments.
But L&I didn’t immediately check on whether the range had corrected its problems. In May 2008, inspectors received a report that another Champion Arms employee’s blood had tested high for lead. Only then did L&I follow up to see if the range really had fixed the hazards.
Inspectors were afraid to return to Champion Arms. “I have a concern about entering this location,” a supervisor said by email. “There is no evidence that the ventilation system has been fixed.”
Later that month, inspectors again found rampant violations, including problems uncorrected since the 2006 inspection. Lead dust still contaminated the range’s air; table and counter tops still remained coated in lead; and employees still lacked the required protective gear.
In cases in which an employer knowingly files false information about correcting workplace violations, L&I can pursue criminal penalties. Despite finding that seven of the violations Geiss claimed to have fixed were still uncorrected, L&I issued only more civil penalties.
L&I cited Champion Arms for 15 violations in November 2008, including six “Failure to Abate Serious” citations, and fined it $42,400.
Once again, Champion filed an appeal in December 2008, halting the state’s orders to fix the problems and pay the fines.
During the year it took to resolve the appeal, the business kept operating. On Dec. 31, 2009, an industrial appeals judge affirmed all 15 violations and the original $42,400 fine against the shooting range.
Again, a gun-range manager guaranteed in November 2010 that Champion Arms had finally corrected all outstanding violations. But a few weeks later, after that same manager had been fired, he complained to L&I that Champion still was exposing its employees to lead at unsafe levels. L&I later issued $10,600 in fines and 10 more violations.
After its fourth inspection of Champion Arms in October 2013, L&I cited it for four more violations, including failing to fully institute a lead-training program for employees — one of the most basic precautions on the books.
Through a manager, Geiss declined to comment. Wangsness died earlier this year.
In 2012, Washington became only the second state to require employers to correct serious workplace hazards during an appeal. L&I pointed to Champion Arms as an example when it asked lawmakers for the change.
Lack of scrutiny
Six years ago, federal OSHA set a new bar for workplace regulators to inspect a business if an employee had elevated blood-lead levels of 25 micrograms or higher. The national emphasis program specifically included shooting ranges.
Several states, including North Carolina, Kentucky and Alaska, adopted the program. But Alaska workplace-safety officials didn’t implement it.
At least four range workers in that state tested above 25 micrograms. But public-health officials didn’t share those test results with regulators because they weren’t aware of the program.
“But now that you mention it,” public-health manager Ali Hamade told The Times, “it’s not a bad idea.”
Some states, like Washington, didn’t know about OSHA’s lead-emphasis program.
In an interview last month, Anne Soiza, L&I’s top official for the agency’s compliance division, expressed ignorance when asked about OSHA’s ongoing program.
“I don’t know what the directive says,” said Soiza, adding she “wasn’t here” when OSHA sent it out.
L&I has collected thousands of blood test results for lead through its Washington State Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance program.
It received notice of 59 employees at nine gun ranges who had lead levels of 25 micrograms or higher in their blood from 2004 through May 2013, according to a Times analysis of a previously unreleased L&I blood-test database. The tally is likely an undercount because workers weren’t required to identify their employer.
Of those nine ranges, L&I inspected four over that time.
L&I has no requirement to alert inspectors of high blood-lead tests, regardless of the level.
The officials said referrals to inspect were made case by case, based on various guidelines.
But blood-lead monitoring officials failed at least once to follow agency guidelines about when to refer “critical situations” to inspectors. In a 2008 case, two employees at a Bellevue gun range had lead levels so high they were removed from work, as required.
Todd Schoonover, L&I’s manager of the blood-monitoring system, declined to comment on his group’s referral decisions.
The state’s lack of scrutiny helped set the stage for what public-health officials now say is the country’s largest reported occupational lead exposure at an indoor gun range.
During the 2008 lead-exposure case, six employees at Wade’s Eastside Guns and Bellevue Indoor Range showed lead poisoning in tests sent to the blood-monitoring program, but results weren’t passed on to L&I inspectors. The agency didn’t inspect Wade’s until 2010, after another cluster of workers tested high for lead.
In 2012, 46 construction and range workers were overexposed to lead during a project to add a second floor to the gun range. As a result of this case, L&I for the first time has started to compile a list of gun ranges in the state and to inspect more of them.
Officials also said the agency will review workers’ blood-lead levels at 25 micrograms, to determine if L&I will investigate.
Federal OSHA officials can’t say how many gun ranges have been inspected nationwide, because they can’t track them. Ranges have registered themselves under such business categories as “all other amusement and recreational industries,” which include bowling alleys and soccer clubs, and “sporting goods stores.” One range claimed to be a shoe store, another a locksmith.
OSHA handles workplace oversight for most states, but 21 states enforce their own occupational safety and health programs that typically mirror federal regulations. Yet whether under OSHA’s or state jurisdiction, regulation of gun ranges is lax.
Alaska, Iowa and Louisiana are among 14 states that have not inspected a commercial gun range in the past 10 years.
Even when OSHA, the nation’s largest workplace-safety enforcer, does take strong action, it sometimes has few consequences.
In 2012, OSHA touted a crackdown at Illinois Gun Works, a firing range in Elmwood Park, a Chicago suburb. After federal inspectors found air inside the range contaminated with lead at 12 times allowable levels, the agency cited the range with 27 serious violations and hit it with $111,000 in fines. OSHA then hyped its enforcement in a widely distributed news release.
But since then, Illinois Gun Works has neither paid a dime nor fixed a single violation. Range owner Don Mastrianni, 59, a retired Chicago garbage collector, said he opted against making costly corrections after he learned his landlord was planning to demolish the building that housed his range.
Instead, Mastrianni kept the range operating for months before it was torn down in 2013 to make way for a new McDonald’s restaurant. Salvagers took no special precautions when hauling off the lead-caked debris.
OSHA has since sent the case to collections, but Mastrianni told The Times in March he had no plans to pay. He had kept active the defunct range’s business registration, believing that protected him from personal liability.
“They can’t come after me, they have to go after Illinois Gun Works,” he said. “But if Illinois Gun Works don’t exist, what are they going to do, go after McDonald’s? I wish them luck.” He died from a heart attack in April.
Another problem is many government agencies collect data from blood tests for lead, but don’t share it with occupational regulators.
Until recently, Iowa Department of Public Health wasn’t allowed to notify state occupational inspectors of gun ranges suspected of overexposing workers. That meant no inspection and no corrective action.
“It bothered me,” said Kathy Leinenkugel, the coordinator for the Occupational Health and Safety Surveillance Program in Iowa. She also faced political pressure over gun ranges.
“If we say to private clubs and retail [gun ranges] you need to make sure you follow OSHA, the pushback is the government is trying to take our guns away,” she said. “I’m not anti-gun. I want them to do it safely.”
California’s lead problems
California is viewed as a leader in fighting lead exposure. Even so, reported contaminations at its gun ranges have increased, though severe poisonings have dropped.
In 1986, California lawmakers passed a bill that created one of the nation’s first statewide blood-lead registries to track exposures at gun ranges and other workplaces.
Five years later, they established a lead-poisoning prevention program within the state’s Department of Public Health. The program educates problem shooting-range owners and managers about lead safety. But case workers have no enforcement authority and typically don’t conduct on-site investigations, working instead by phone and email.
They rarely refer range owners to California-OSHA for enforcement. When they do, it’s for particularly egregious cases. Cal-OSHA inspected 19 commercial indoor shooting ranges from 2004 to 2013, and fined them nearly $70,000.
But enforcement doesn’t always mean compliance. Repeat violators remain a problem, records show. And most California ranges have never been inspected.
“Overexposure to lead continues to be a serious occupational-health problem in California” gun ranges, Dr. Barbara Materna, occupational-health chief of the California Department of Public Health, said in an email.
When The Times asked the health department for public records of gun ranges with lead problems, it refused to provide company names, or even the city where they did business, citing privacy concerns.
Thousands of other gun ranges — those run by volunteers or that are members-only clubs — simply aren’t monitored for lead problems. With no employees, these ranges are not subject to OSHA inspections and operators often are unaware of the dangers of lead contamination.
Bob Godlove and his wife traveled the Midwest, shooting in gun competitions. It was a bond that made their marriage stronger. But their passion for shooting turned toxic.
As president of the Linn County Izaak Walton League in Iowa for more than 15 years, Godlove volunteered 20 hours a week, cleaning the gun range and managing the facility. The conservation organization, with chapters across the United States, has as its motto “defenders of soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife.”
For years, Godlove knew he had chronic lead exposure, with blood-lead levels around 40 micrograms per deciliter. His wife never got above 20. But he thought nothing of test results because they were below 60, the OSHA standard that requires removal from work. The CDC says any lead level over 10 is a health risk.
In 2008, Godlove said, he felt tingling in his hands and feet, often lost his balance, and developed a temper. His lead level had shot up to 67 and lead attacked other parts of his body.
When he told fellow league members he’d suffered lead poisoning, the culture he’d been a part of for decades smacked him right across the face.
Fellow competitive shooters were adamant lead wasn’t a problem. Many volunteers at the league didn’t feel any urgency despite at least one other person having elevated lead. They didn’t feel sick and no one had died, they told Godlove.
“I was unwilling to put it under the rug, and lots of people wanted me to,” Godlove said.
Others feared the range would close if people knew it was possibly contaminated.
“It’s a pervasive problem across the country — the lack of awareness and a belief that people and governments are trying to infringe on a gun owner’s rights and ability to shoot,” he said.
He upgraded the range ventilation system and posted lead-warning signs. He talks about personal hygiene with new members and in the basic firearms classes he teaches.
For more than two years, Godlove had to take chelation pills costing as much as $3,800 a month to rid his body of lead. But it was too late. It already had attacked his nervous system.
“It’s insidious,” he said.
With up to half of the feeling lost in his hands, Godlove has trouble picking up coins and paperwork.
He also can’t pull a trigger and fire accurately anymore. So he quit competitive shooting.
Bellevue shooting range poisoned dozens
The worst known case of workplace lead exposure at a U.S. range happened during renovations at Wade’s Eastside Guns in 2012. But documented hazards there go back to 2008.
By CHRISTINE WILLMSEN and LEWIS KAMB OCT. 17, 2014
In a cramped hotel room on Christmas Eve, a pale and hollow-eyed man embraced his two children and whispered they’d be OK.
Despite his assurances, Manny Romo, a 34-year-old ironworker, wasn’t so certain about the future. Will I die? he wondered. Who will take care of my family?
An invisible assailant had invaded the bodies of Romo and his two kids, attacking their bones, brains and nerves.
They were contaminated with lead. And it came from an unexpected place.
In fall 2012, Romo had inhaled lead while helping erect a second story on Wade’s Eastside Guns and Bellevue Indoor Range. He was never warned about lead hazards from spent ammunition at the worksite and unknowingly tracked the poison home to his children.
Shortly before Christmas 2012, the Romo family evacuated their Auburn home, fearing for their safety and leaving behind contaminated furniture and toys.
Romo was one of 46 people contaminated by lead during the Wade’s renovation — the worst known case of occupational lead exposure at an American shooting range, according to public-health officials.
The 2012 contamination was the latest of several lead-poisoning cases at the Bellevue gun range, where owner Wade Gaughran has repeatedly put his workers in danger and the public at risk, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
The construction company and subcontractors during the 2012 project also did little to protect their workers or educate them about potential hazards at the shooting range.
State workplace-safety officials, whose mission is to protect workers, also failed to act quickly after being alerted to the widespread lead exposure there.
Wade’s offers a stark example of a little-known national problem that impacts workers and the growing ranks of recreational shooters: Owners have been running dirty ranges for years yet face little or no scrutiny from state and federal safety-and-health regulators.
Over the past decade, thousands of workers and shooters across America have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead at gun ranges, inhaling lead dust or absorbing it by contact with lead-covered surfaces, The Times has found.
Range owners who don’t properly clean or ventilate shooting ranges are the primary culprits. Sometimes, owners know about the risks, but simply ignore them. Others are ignorant of the health hazards posed by lead — a debilitating toxin that can even cause death.
Since the 2012 case, Gaughran has hired a health-and-safety firm to control lead exposures. Managers are trained and oversee a new lead-compliance program.
L&I officials said based on their latest monitoring last year, the gun range is safe for workers and the public.
Gaughran also said he has invested $2 million on a custom-built ventilation system and new bullet traps.
“There’s nobody in the state that’s as clean as we are,” he told The Times this month. “Nobody.”
“A dust storm”
Guns were just a weekend hobby for Gaughran until he saw how much money could be made from them. While selling insurance in the late 1980s, Gaughran went to the Puyallup Gun Show for fun on weekends.
“I see all the business going down — literally millions of dollars are changing hands,” he said, “and I just started buying a few guns.”
Soon, Gaughran ditched his “suit-and-tie” job and opened a small gun shop in Bellevue. Eventually, he purchased land on Bel-Red Road where he envisioned building a bigger shop with a shooting range.
He finally opened Wade’s Eastside Guns in 1996, building it over the years into one of the largest gun stores and indoor firing ranges in the state.
But in summer 2008, Gaughran had a problem. He hadn’t kept up with the tons of spent ammunition that filled his shooting range. Shooters had fired so many bullets into a sand-berm backstop at the end of the shooting lanes that it caused the back wall to split.
“We were breaking out the back wall of the building” with a half-million pounds of sand and lead pushing against it, Gaughran recalled.
“It looked like a fat girl wearing stretch pants, right?… And I’m like, we need to do something or that wall is going to end up on Bel-Red Road.”
The sand berm was so packed with spent ammo that incoming bullets occasionally struck metal and ricocheted back toward shooters, or escaped the building, two workers have said.
That summer, William Sweat, of Kirkland, was waiting at a bus stop outside the gun range on Bel-Red Road when he heard gunfire and something whiz by his head. “I don’t know how the hell this shrapnel was coming out of the building … but it damn near hit me in the head,” he said.
Sweat showed “a mangled-up bullet” that escaped the range to a man working inside Wade’s who told Sweat he was the owner. After the man dismissed his complaint, Sweat called 911. An officer responded and reported he found no holes in exterior walls and closed the case. Gaughran denied it happened.
To solve his problem with the berm — and to cash in on the lucrative scrap metal inside it — Gaughran offered cash, guns or store credit to employees to help remove the sand berm and sift out the tons of spent lead, which was worth up to 70 cents a pound.
Gun salesman Roberto Sanchez and range safety officer Sean Eals agreed to the extra duty. But they knew little about the dangers of lead removal and said they were given no training.
Gaughran gave them gloves, protective coveralls and paper dust masks, but they recall he didn’t initially supply them with respirators required for such work.
Following their regular shifts, the two men and others worked through hot August nights, mining lead in the hours before the gun range reopened in the morning.
Sanchez used a forklift to break up compacted sand into chunks, then Eals scooped them up with a Bobcat and dumped them into a screening machine that sifted out the lead. The workers then hauled out the metal and dumped it in a large, open container in the parking lot.
For weeks, as they removed 350,000 pounds of lead, Sanchez said he and the others worked inside “a dust storm.”
“We were just breathing the dust the whole time,” said Sanchez, an Army veteran who served during Operation Desert Storm. “It was soaking through our clothes.”
During cigarette breaks, Eals recalled, workers shook off the lead from their bodies. “You could just feel the heaviness of it in your hair — or in your nose or eyes,” said Eals, who grew increasingly agitated as if he’d been drinking coffee all day.
Some workers spontaneously vomited. Sanchez’s joints and muscles ached, he felt dizzy and drained, and his head throbbed.
One morning, Sanchez woke up hardly able to move, with pain shooting through his lower back. “It felt like somebody was stabbing me in the kidneys,” he said.
He crept out of bed to his car and drove to the urgent-care unit at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle. A doctor there took blood tests, and later told Sanchez the amount of lead in his blood was off the scale.
The tests showed he had 83.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter — 70 times the blood-lead amount of an average person, 1.2 micrograms.
Health problems can occur at 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lead is particularly dangerous because at lower levels symptoms usually don’t appear, even as it damages a person’s body.
The VA reported Sanchez’s dangerously high test result to the state’s Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES) program. Supervised by Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries (L&I), the program collects and tracks data on lead exposure. When workers’ blood-lead levels are high, ABLES officials can alert L&I’s enforcement arm so it can inspect workplaces for safety and health violations.
The lead level in Sanchez’s blood was the highest reported for a shooting-range worker in Washington recorded by the ABLES program.
Workers overexposed to lead at Washington shooting ranges
Over the past 10 years, at least 89 workers at Washington shooting ranges had blood-lead levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers harmful. Explore test results at the shooting ranges.
10 micrograms per deciliter: CDC considers this level elevated for the public and it may be harmful.
25 micrograms per deciliter: A worker has been overexposed to lead and serious health problems can occur.
60 micrograms per deciliter: Employee must be removed from work area until lead level decreases.
100 micrograms per deciliter: Severe brain and kidney damage can occur.
Sources: state Department of Labor and Industries; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Occupational Safety & Health Administration; Environmental Protection Agency
Sanchez’s doctor and L&I officials notified Gaughran’s business that Sanchez shouldn’t perform work that would expose him to lead. State and federal standards require a “medical removal” of any worker whose blood-lead level exceeds 60.
Sanchez’s doctor also advised him to start emergency chelation therapy — a risky procedure that involves taking medications to help flush heavy metals from the body.
After Sanchez, five other employees got tested and found high lead levels in their blood. All tested above 34, including Eals, at 62. Both Sanchez and Eals were put in jobs in the gun retail area.
But other than interviewing employees by phone and exchanging information with Gaughran, blood-surveillance officials didn’t alert L&I’s enforcement arm to investigate Wade’s shooting range, which could have led to citations and fines.
A Times analysis found that of the gun ranges not inspected from 2004 through May 2013, ABLES received 40 blood tests of employees with high lead levels.
Todd Schoonover, research manager of ABLES, refused to be interviewed by The Times to explain his decisions; L&I officials said protocols for making referrals are complex and no blood-lead test at any level requires an inspection.
Two years later
In a September 2008 email to L&I officials, Gaughran said he was changing workplace practices and dealing with his range’s lead problems.
“We understand the seriousness of the issue and will address anything and everything needed,” he wrote.
But Gaughran didn’t keep his promise. Two years later, in mid-2010, six workers at Gaughran’s range tested at 25 micrograms or higher for lead in their blood, including one result of 41. The overexposed employees’ duties included helping shooters in the range, dry-sweeping the floor and working the retail area.
After getting high blood-lead test results for the employees, Schoonover identified the cluster as “a critical situation.”
He informed a colleague on June 30 the cluster “implies that the facility is likely deficient in basically everything.” Schoonover’s email said he already referred the case to inspectors, noting Wade’s had never been inspected.
Records show the gun range had workers with lead levels as high as 42 in 1996.
When L&I receives a referral about a serious hazard, regulations say it must inspect as soon as possible but no later than 15 working days.
But L&I officials couldn’t explain why six weeks had passed before a state industrial hygienist opened an inspection at Wade’s on Aug. 13, 2010. She eventually found seven violations, including two serious ones. L&I issued a $350 fine.
About six months later, a manager at Gaughran’s range told L&I in writing the violations had been fixed.
Building the business
By 2011, Gaughran had decided to expand his business by adding a second story to his popular gun store and range.
His architect, in a March 2011 building permit for the city of Bellevue, answered “NONE” to describe potential environmental health hazards during the project. During the construction, he said, special filters would be installed to remove lead and gunshot residue from the air.
Gaughran selected S.D. Deacon, a general contractor with offices in Bellevue, Portland and several California cities, for the $2.6 million project. Unlike another bidder, S.D. Deacon promised to mostly keep the firing range open to the public while it built the second story, renovated the range, installed a ventilation system and built a new bullet-trap system.
But S.D. Deacon wouldn’t take on one part of the job — removing the tall sand berm contaminated with tons of lead.
Once again, Gaughran hired his own employees in the fall of 2012 to mine the sand pile. He would later say it was at least the 15th time workers had mined the lead. As in the past, Wade’s workers received little or no training and wore scant protective gear, records show.
By sunrise, when workers left their overnight shifts, lead particles painted their faces and lead dust coated their lungs. After several weeks, the workers had removed about 100,000 pounds of recyclable lead. Another 578 tons of lead-contaminated sand filled 30 semi-trucks, which hauled it to the Doe Run recycling center in Boss, Mo.
During the early stages of construction in fall 2012, Leonard Guthrie, S.D. Deacon’s superintendent in charge of the construction, believed that lead just wasn’t a problem.
He’d seen children in the shooting range and observed Wade’s employees cleaning it without full protective equipment.
Guthrie would later tell a state investigator that when he pressed Gaughran about lead, the gun-range owner swore at him and told him to shut up. After a while Guthrie stopped asking about lead hazards.
Gaughran recently said he repeatedly told Guthrie and others they had to protect workers because “anything that looks gray is lead.”
On Sept. 10, 2012, an environmental company hired by S.D. Deacon sent an alarming report to the contractor.
Med-Tox Northwest tested the gun range and found it “severely contaminated” with lead, at 435 times the guidelines for surfaces. Even the ceiling’s fiberglass insulation was loaded with lead. But Guthrie and other managers didn’t halt the project.
Med-Tox Northwest created a lead-compliance program for S.D. Deacon and its subcontractors that included training, respirators, employee blood-lead tests, daily air-quality monitoring, and a decontamination room.
Under this plan, Wade’s firing range would only be open to the public if its air had fewer than 30 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour period. That standard is the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) exposure level that triggers extra protections for employees.
To save money, S.D. Deacon officials would later say, the company decided to implement the entire lead program itself, even though it had no experience in lead abatement.
S.D. Deacon safety manager Glen Kuntz “skimmed” Med-Tox’s contamination report and proposed compliance program, he later told an L&I investigator.
He purchased a “negative air machine” to push the lead-contaminated dust out of the range as well as equipment for a decontamination room. But S.D. Deacon employees never set it up and Kuntz returned the equipment.
The S.D. Deacon team also did not test the air to determine if the range was safe enough to be open to the public, as Med-Tox Northwest had recommended.
S.D. Deacon officials later told L&I that they had provided some protective gear to workers, but some refused to wear it.
Several workers — including Romo, who worked for subcontractor Brooks Steel — said lead wasn’t discussed during weekly safety meetings.
As Romo and others demolished parts of the shooting range, they had no idea lead polluted it.
In mid-September 2012, Wade’s workers tore down ceiling insulation at night with long pike poles. The air was so thick with lead dust that they couldn’t see in front of them, one Wade’s worker said.
It clung to their lungs and skin. Over several long nights, they stuffed 200 garbage bags full of lead-laced insulation.
One night, Wade’s employees made a short video of the insulation removal, documenting their lack of protection and expressing fear of lead contamination.
Soon workers complained of tremors, severe headaches, fatigue, irritability, stomach cramps and loss of appetite. One of them went to the doctor and discovered his blood-lead level had reached 48. A few days later, his high test results were reported to the state’s blood-lead surveillance program. By then, one worker was vomiting.
Spitting out lead
In early November 2012, bricklayer George Dunn worked next to a large exhaust fan on the roof of the Bellevue shooting range when he heard a noise that startled him.
First, he said, he heard the “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire, followed immediately by the “ping” of metal spiraling through the fan next to him. Bullet fragments rattled inside the vent and then spewed out, with no filters catching them.
“It was spitting all the lead chips out and exposing everyone, blowing all over,” he would later say.
A bricklayer for 25 years, Dunn had worked for about three weeks with a crew building the second story. Dunn and other crew members repeatedly had been told their work on the roof didn’t pose any health risks, and he said S.D. Deacon, the contractor supervising the job, hadn’t issued any special protective gear.
But when co-workers started acting edgy — and he started feeling strange himself — Dunn began having doubts.
“My nose, chest, eyes, lips were all burning,” Dunn recalled. “And I had these side aches. My wife said something was wrong with me, because I just kept walking around holding my kidneys all the time.”
He noticed a 20-foot wide circle of thick, gray dust around the fans.
Dunn had had enough. “I just said, ‘The hell with it. I quit.’”
The next day, Nov. 8, 2012, Dunn called L&I about the unsafe workplace.
Dunn, who never got his blood tested, asked an L&I official about the health risks of lead exposure and explained how lead dust spewed onto workers and others at the range.
“I told her that there was a bus stop right there on the street down below the vent,” Dunn said. “And [lead] is blowing all down on the pedestrians down there.”
The official told Dunn that L& I already knew about the lead problem there. A couple of weeks earlier, the agency had received blood results for two workers there who had elevated lead levels.
She recommended that Dunn drink orange juice to help reduce any lead absorption, he recalled. L&I didn’t contact public-health officials until more than three weeks later.
On Nov. 13, near the end of the 15 business-day deadline to open an inspection, L&I officials showed up at Wade’s. “Timing was very quick that we got out there,” said Venetia Runnion, an L&I manager on the inspection team.
Inspectors interviewed workers, tested the air and swabbed surfaces for lead over several weeks before ultimately determining what Dunn had told them was true.
During the visit, Gaughran was cooperative, Runnion said.
In all, inspectors would find 18 violations, mostly related to poor ventilation, lack of training, and high lead levels on surfaces and in the air.
Meanwhile, L&I notified S.D. Deacon on Nov. 15 that its whole crew should get blood tests to find out if they’d been overexposed to lead.
Twenty-six of them turned out to have high lead levels.
S.D. Deacon’s foreman had the highest at 153 micrograms, more than 127 times average.
Concerned about the rash of lead cases at Wade’s, Runnion noted in an email to colleagues and to Gaughran and his managers that the public was still shooting there, despite its toxic condition.
In one of the shooting bays, customers would be exposed to the maximum allowable 8-hour airborne standard for workers in just 49 minutes.
L&I had the power to shut down the poisoned shooting range until Gaughran had it decontaminated. The agency had considered taking this drastic step — an “order and notice of immediate restraint” — against another dirty gun range once before, but did not do so.
On Nov. 30, Runnion urged — but did not order — Gaughran to close the range immediately, writing, “Thank you in advance for choosing to do the right thing to control this health hazard in a timely manner.”
Still, Gaughran kept it open.
For several months in fall 2012, Manny Romo tracked poison into his car and then into his home on his heavy, lead-caked work boots and clothes.
“I was sleeping with it, eating with it, living with it,” he said. “Lead was my life at that point and I had no idea.”
As his 5-year-old daughter, Serenity, played on the floor, she got lead on her skin, clothing and toys. His 13-year-old son, Devin, absorbed lead that had settled on furniture and tools.
Serenity started vomiting. Her blood-lead level was above what the CDC considers high for children. Teachers complained Devin was in a stupor and his grades were slipping. He too had been contaminated.
Romo felt numbness and tingling in his feet and hands. His stomach ached and he couldn’t concentrate. His blood test on Nov. 20 revealed a 73, one of the highest of anyone exposed at Wade’s. As required, his employer removed him from the job.
His wife, Katrina, tested at normal levels.
Romo and his family evacuated their Auburn apartment about a week before Christmas.
After tests showed the family’s apartment contaminated with lead, Romo compiled a 28-page list of possessions that were taken from them. It included a hand-knit blanket from Romo’s grandmother, Serenity’s books and Devin’s Star Wars collection.
On Christmas Day, the Romo family moved back into their decontaminated, nearly empty apartment. After two months, they moved out again because Serenity’s blood levels hadn’t dropped.
Abatement crews removed lead from several other workers’ homes and cars, and even had to decontaminate 10 rooms at a Bellevue hotel where workers stayed during the construction.
An urgent message
After L&I alerted Public Health — Seattle & King County about several workers poisoned at Wade’s, Dr. David Fleming raised concerns.
“Yikes, these are very high and non-tolerable levels,” Fleming, then-director of the agency wrote on Dec. 4, 2012. “We need to move on this.”
L&I feared Wade’s customers who used the range, which was open off and on for the past four months, had been contaminated.
L&I officials wanted Public Health to halt the shooting range renovation and close the facility to shooters, the health agency’s emails show.
Fleming’s office quickly responded, asking Gaughran to provide a list of active shooters so it could notify them about the lead problems and recommend blood tests.
Gaughran didn’t provide names, saying he had no frequent shooters at the range.
On Dec. 10, Public Health officials asked Gaughran to voluntarily close his range so that lead could be safely removed from the building.
But Gaughran became “combative” about any hint of closing, Public Health emails show. “Just because there is lead on the floor, benches or shooting partition does not mean the customers or employees are getting lead into their bodies,” he responded to the agency the same day.
With no blood tests of customers, health officials lacked proof that any member of the public was overexposed to lead. However, numerous cases across the country illustrate that shooting enthusiasts have suffered lead poisoning at gun ranges.
Behind the scenes, a King County public-health official drafted a health order that showed the agency had the authority to shut down the range. When officials said they would visit to get more evidence of contamination, Gaughran closed the range the next day, Dec. 11.
Within days, Gaughran laid off some employees and fired several others, including at least two men who had lead poisoning.
They contend that Gaughran fired them because they had had their blood tested for lead and questioned the range’s safety.
Gaughran had promised to give a gun or a $450 gift certificate at the gun shop as a bonus to workers who helped remove insulation and lead from the berm. But he refused to give the bonus to two of the men, they said.
His reason? They threatened “to rat on us if … they didn’t get their pistols,” Gaughran told The Times in an email. “The whole thing is BULLSHIT.”
He said he fired some employees because they weren’t reliable. Employees were trained and educated about lead hazards, Gaughran said, and any workers who claimed they became sick were simply careless or later motivated by money.
He hired an environmental cleanup company and reopened parts of the range four days later, contrary to Public Health’s request.
An eye on customers
At Public Health — Seattle & King County, officials like Director of Environmental Health Ngozi Oleru were flummoxed as they tried to deal with Wade’s as a potential public-health threat.
While laws protect workers from airborne lead, no regulations are in place to shield the public while indoors. Could the county test customers for lead, and if results were bad, close the firing range? That situation had never been tackled before.
With little help from Gaughran, the county sought advice from Mary Jean Brown, a scientist with the CDC. According to the county, Brown replied that it lacked air-monitoring evidence showing customers were at significant risk and to not worry the public about it.
Brown declined to comment.
So Public Health officials sought proof, asking Gaughran for shooters who would volunteer for a lead-air exposure evaluation after a new ventilation system had been installed and the building remediated. If these customers had breathing exposures higher than what OSHA allowed for workers, then Gaughran would have to close his business again, Oleru warned.
At that point the public had little knowledge lead was a problem at the range other than notices taped on a door to the shooting range.
During Ladies Night on Dec. 18, six men volunteered to be monitored while shooting. Three of them had “personal breathing zones” of lead higher than what OSHA allowed for workers.
When Public Health shared the alarming results with the CDC, Oleru realized she had a problem. Unlike for workers, there are no state or federal standards for safe levels of indoor airborne lead for the general public.
“The science is not available,” she told The Times.
That made it difficult to conclude whether Wade’s had harmed shooters and what to enforce, she said. “What’s the hammer we have?” the frustrated Oleru asked.
The public only discovered the lead problem when two employees of Brooks Steel, a subcontractor on the project, told their stories of becoming ill to The Times and other local news outlets.
Oleru said her agency asked but never did receive further air-quality tests from Wade’s. But by the spring L&I had indicated the range had passed tests showing it was safe for workers and ultimately the public.
“Lead poisoning is no joke,” Roberto Sanchez said.
More than six years after his poisoning at Wade’s, Sanchez, 44, says his hands shake, his equilibrium is off and he suffers dizzy spells. The dull, biting pain that permeates his joints and muscles and fluctuates from annoying to unbearable is the worst.
“Nobody should have to go through pain for the rest of their life,” said Sanchez, who quit Wade’s in 2011.
He tried several medications for the nerve damage, but they either made him suicidal or didn’t work. He recently started acupuncture.
Sanchez now owns his own gun shop in Monroe. When he shoots, which is rare, he does so outdoors.
Sanchez said he’s angry at Gaughran for his disregard of employees. “You figure after the first time people got sick, it would have stopped,” he said.
Last year, L&I at first decided to deal a heavy blow to Wade’s Eastside Guns, issuing two “willful” violations — the most severe class of penalties.
But an agency lawyer overruled that choice. She said there was no proof Gaughran was aware of L&I’s 2010 inspection and citations, even though David Geisert, a range manager from 2010, told The Times he had discussed the lead problems at length with Gaughran and another manager. L&I inspectors never tried to interview Geisert.
L&I’s own records also show Gaughran exchanged emails with state officials after Sanchez’s poisoning in 2008, vowing even then to solve lead problems.
For the 2012 mass exposure, Wade’s was originally fined $23,480, but after an informal appeal, the parties settled for $17,920.
The case alarmed health director Fleming enough that he asked Gov. Jay Inslee and L&I to strengthen the lead standards.
“Washington State’s current standards put workers and their families at risk,” he wrote in his petition, suggesting workers should be removed from the workplace when tests show exposure at much lower levels of lead.
L&I denied the petition, stating it would wait to see what happens in California, where officials are considering a similar proposal.
The construction project at Wade’s still haunts S.D. Deacon’s safety manager, Glen Kuntz. Had managers simply hired an outside environmental consultant to routinely test for lead, Kuntz said, he would have known about the dangers and prevented much of the exposure.
“I totally blew it. … This is the biggest failure of anything I’ve done with my life,” he told L&I investigators. “It’s about these guys going home to their families safe and not being crippled up or broken.”
More than 10 workers sued Gaughran and S.D. Deacon. They settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in June.
An S.D. Deacon executive declined an interview, citing ongoing litigation.
During an appeal of his fines and violations in July 2013, Gaughran told an L&I hearing officer he remained bitter about the experience.
“I deal with you, I deal with the Department of Revenue, I deal with the IRS, I deal with the ATF and I deal with FBI and 17 other smaller governments,” Gaughran told the hearing officer. “Every single government regulatory agency comes to me and says, ‘I’m the most important person in the world and you have to follow all my regulations.’ … I got to tell you when I hear that speech, I’m thinking how do I get out of business? … Why am I making money for everybody in the world and setting myself up for prosecution on every front?”
For ironworker Manny Romo, who unknowingly contaminated his children, his primary concern is the possible long-term health effects on them. He and two other workers are now suing Wade’s and S.D. Deacon.
Gaughran “hasn’t learned his lesson,” Romo said. “What’s it going to take — a death?”
Young shooters at risk
At a shooting club in Vancouver, Wash., 20 youngsters tested positive for lead overexposure. ‘We would get lead on our hands and eat finger food,’ one teenager recalls.
By CHRISTINE WILLMSEN and LEWIS KAMB OCT. 20, 2014
The youngsters knew their sport could be dangerous, even deadly.
But for the junior team at the Vancouver (Wash.) Rifle and Pistol Club, the peril that emerged from their sport didn’t come from a stray bullet.
It came from lead.
In 2010, blood tests revealed that 20 youths had been overexposed to the poisonous metal after shooting in the club’s dirty, poorly ventilated range.
“It was devastating,” said Marc Ueltschi, the junior team coach and a club member. “It scared the life out of me. No one knew anything about lead poisoning and what to fix.”
Vancouver Rifle is just one of several private gun clubs across the United States that have posed health hazards in a sport with growing numbers of youths and women.
While those most likely to be poisoned by lead in gun ranges are the workers themselves, The Seattle Times has found dozens of avid shooters overexposed in such states as Washington, Massachusetts and Alaska.
The most vulnerable are children learning to shoot and compete in clubs operated by volunteers who may have little knowledge of the risks of firing lead ammunition. Gunfire can put lead residue in the air, and on the skin and nearby surfaces.
Clubs like Vancouver Rifle are membership-based organizations. With no paid employees, they aren’t governed by workplace-safety laws and aren’t subject to inspections that would identify deficiencies.
In this unregulated world of shooting, it’s nearly impossible to determine how many of the thousands of volunteer-based ranges are contaminated.
While lead poisoning among casual shooters is rare, the risk increases the more they shoot, particularly if it’s in poorly ventilated and maintained ranges.
“We weren’t very cautious”
Cordelia Schadler started shooting in seventh grade at the Vancouver club. She and her two younger brothers practiced there with other kids aged 10 to 19 and participated in local, state and national marksmen competitions.
When blood-test reports revealed that the three Schadlers had elevated levels of lead in 2010, it surprised club members.
Their levels ranged from 12 to 17 micrograms per deciliter — much higher than the threshold of 5 that health officials now say can cause health problems for kids.
No level of lead is safe for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even low levels of lead can decrease IQ, slow development and cause kidney damage.
“We weren’t very cautious,” Schadler, 18, recalled. “We would get lead on our hands and eat finger food.”
Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health director, calls lead “a silent killer” and says damage from lead exposure might not be noticed for many years.
In March 2010, after receiving the test results, Clark County Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick launched an investigation.
Parents, volunteers and children soon discovered their club was contaminated with lead.
The club, formed in 1958, holds competitions like Bullseye Pistol and Cowboy Action and teaches firearms courses. The 250-member club has a junior team and also allows the JROTC, the Young Marines and Boy Scouts of America to shoot there.
An examination of the range revealed lead nestled in the carpet, chairs and a couch. Surface tests showed dangerous amounts of lead stuck to counters, a soda machine and the refrigerator, Clark County public records show.
The floor was 993 times higher than a federal housing guideline for allowable lead on surfaces.
Ventilation failed to move the airborne lead particles downrange away from shooters; volunteers rarely cleaned the 12 shooting lanes, according to records and interviews.
Even worse, children inhaled lead, ate lead and absorbed lead through skin contact with dirty surfaces.
Melnick urged that the junior team and the club members be tested for lead. The results: 20 of 32 children had elevated blood-lead levels. One 14-year-old shooter had 20 micrograms.
While none of the shooters showed signs of being affected by the lead, Melnick said damage might not be noticed for many years.
“I think this is a silent killer,” Melnick said. “There’s skepticism because there are no symptoms at this level; the cognitive changes can be fairly subtle.”
Even coach Ueltschi’s son, Kyle, had an elevated level of lead.
“He’d get off practice, he’d go home and eat,” Marc Ueltschi said. “He was ingesting it.”
In April 2010, Melnick recommended kids not shoot at the range until it was fixed. Leaders of the club agreed, but if children had parental approval, they could shoot there.
Melnick surveyed shooters, discovering those spending more time in the club had higher lead in their system. He also found that several of them may have had additional sources of contamination because they used their home or garage as a shooting range and made their own ammunition.
Indoor ranges with inadequate ventilation pose the highest hazard to shooters. But even outdoor ranges can overexpose competitive shooters, depending on the wind direction, frequency of shooting and cleanliness of the area.
Alaska teams exposed
Eight years earlier, a similar spate of lead exposures rocked the remote Tok School in interior Alaska, revealing a widespread problem for school rifle teams using poorly maintained ranges.
After the Tok team’s coach tested high for lead in 2002, public-health investigators soon learned student shooters practiced three to four times a week at a range inside their K-12 school’s multipurpose building. It also housed a hockey rink, was ventilated only by a utility fan and had carpeting loaded with lead dust.
Officials then tested the team’s seven members, aged 15 to 17, and found all had high lead levels, ranging from 21 to 31 micrograms per deciliter. The average is 1.2 micrograms for adults.
The Tok overexposures prompted a review of several other ranges used by school rifle teams in Alaska. Investigators soon found lead exposure in members of four other teams, including 10 students on Fairbanks’ Lathrop High School shooting squad.
Lathrop’s students often helped dry sweep the volunteer-run Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association shooting range, kicking up dust in the poorly ventilated facility.
Several other teams practiced at filthy ranges, including a school-operated range in a room also used for meetings, lunches, physical education and wrestling practice.
In all, investigators found significant lead exposure in 21 student shooters, several coaches and others.
When investigators looked at two other shooting teams that used a properly cleaned and ventilated commercial range, not a single member tested high for lead.
The lack of regulation at volunteer-run ranges contributed to the overexposures, investigators concluded. They recommended local health officials identify unregulated ranges in their areas and encourage owners to get them assessed and to address potential lead problems.
The investigation spurred case studies still used by public-health officials nationwide. But the problems identified are still repeated — even in Alaska.
In 2007, health investigators trying to figure out why a 1-year-old had elevated blood-lead levels learned the baby’s brother was on the rifle team at Delta High, near Fairbanks. After tests revealed lead poisoning in the brother, officials theorized he unknowingly contaminated the baby by tracking lead home from shooting practice.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we should check the whole team,’” said Lori Verbrugge, then a state public-health program manager who helped conduct the investigation.
Investigators soon found four other team members with high lead levels. Officials recommended the community range hire a consultant to assess its operations, and proposed to the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) to “make blood testing a standard practice for all kids that participate in this sport,” Verbrugge said.
PJ Ford Slack, then-superintendent of the Delta Greely School District, noted that the ASAA, which oversees Alaska’s interscholastic sports programs, had adopted strict rules for some sports over the years. But when it came to regulating rifle teams, the association balked, she said.
“They have a concussion policy, so why not one for lead poisoning?” Ford Slack asked. “But Alaska is a hunting state. Guns are part of the culture here and this became a political thing.”
Gary Matthews, then the ASAA’s executive director, said his group’s board of directors adopted voluntary “health considerations” for school shooting sports to avoid lead exposure. But representatives of schools with rifle teams largely opposed mandatory blood tests as too expensive and invasive, he said.
Ford Slack, whose husband later coached the Delta team, noted the squad improved its shooting hygiene and the community range also changed protocols.
In recent years, several shooting teams in Alaska have switched from small-bore firearms to air rifles, which can reduce lead exposure risks.
Still, firing ranges remain Alaska’s No. 1 source for lead exposure in children aged 6 to 17, the latest state study shows.
Teens test high for lead
Just a few months ago outside Boston, three teenagers on a competitive shooting team tested high for lead.
The team practiced at the Hopedale Pistol and Rifle Club, an institution for more than half a century in the town of 5,900.
Their elevated blood-lead levels triggered a visit from the local health department. Some parents with kids on the team were disturbed to learn that shooters had been overexposed. Other club members were irate that the matter wasn’t handled in-house first, said Hopedale health agent Lenny Izzo.
The members-only club agreed to have the state’s Department of Labor and Standards examine its brick building, which housed a clubhouse, eight shooting lanes and a “reloading” room with melting pots and molds for making bullets.
An inspector detected poor ventilation and extremely high amounts of lead on surfaces in the lanes and clubhouse.
The club recently closed, hired an abatement company to clean the property and remains shuttered.
Had it not voluntarily closed, Izzo said, Hopedale’s health board would have forced it to close.
In another case, a dirty Wisconsin gun range, open to the public, operated for years in the basement of a middle school.
At the Sheboygan Rifle and Pistol Club, an hour north of Milwaukee, rifle-club members and city residents took safety classes and shot in the basement range after children were dismissed for the day from Urban Middle School.
In 2007, parents who were worried that students and staff could be at risk pressured the Sheboygan School District to test the range.
“It’s an important tradition here in Wisconsin — shooting,” said Lisa Janairo, one of the parents. “We believed they were taking no measures to protect shooters and the students, staff and teachers.”
Tests by an environmental company showed shooters tracked lead into the school’s hallway but it posed little risk to students and staff.
But inside the range, a certified industrial hygienist said in a report, ventilation failed to protect shooters and lead on a trophy table was 105 times the standard used by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The rifle club cleaned the range and changed practices but couldn’t afford the $50,000 upgrade to the range’s ventilation system and decided to close.
In North Carolina, school officials evacuated and closed the Hemlock Building at the Asheville-Bumcombe Technical Community College in 2011 after tests found high lead levels linked to an indoor firing range used by law-enforcement students.
Lead from the ground-floor gun range had spread to all three floors through a ventilation system and by people tracking it.
The college has since dismantled the range and cleaned up the building.
Earlier this year in Helena, Mont., officials shut down one of the state’s largest middle schools for about a week after finding lead contamination in the building from a sealed-off, basement gun range that had operated decades earlier.
No one at C.R. Anderson Middle School tested high for blood-lead levels. In all, the district had to spend about $130,000 addressing the issue.
Clean bill of health
Children lug heavy rifle bags, bigger than they are, past the display case of trophies and the deer mounted on the wall at the Vancouver club.
At the start of practice, young shooters assemble their small-bore rifles, some costing as much as $2,000. They put on shooting garb — heavy pants, strapped-jackets and flat-soled shoes.
On the range floor, Thomas Kuzis, 14, of Vancouver, lies on a mat in prone position, looks through his rifle sight and steadies his body. He slowly exhales and fires at the target 50 feet away.
“Line cold — targets!” Ueltschi shouts, the command to stop firing, secure their weapons, then retrieve their targets at the end of the lanes.
A dozen rifle-team members including Kuzis gather their paper targets and then hand them to their coach.
“Consistency — this is what we wanted to see,” Ueltschi tells Kuzis, and pats him on the back.
Kuzis smiles, proud of his improvement.
He and the other members practice twice a week and will shoot in up to 23 competitions this year.
Doris Kuzis said she makes sure her son doesn’t eat or drink while shooting, keeps his shooting clothes in the gun bag and always washes his hands.
But at a practice earlier this year, some team members left practice without washing their hands and face.
Asked about it, Ueltschi said kids must be frequently reminded how to avoid lead.
A National Rifle Association grant had helped pay for upgrades to the ventilation and the building. Those improvements, combined with good housekeeping and personal hygiene, have lowered the lead levels of the team members, he said.
In January 2011, the county gave it a clean bill of health.
Ueltschi is thankful Clark County Public Health intervened.
“We saw everything that we were doing wrong, why it was wrong, what we needed to do and we did it,” he said. “Not only did it protect kids, it also saved the club from having to permanently close.”
Still, there are some ranges the coach won’t step into because they are so contaminated.
Ueltschi said the shooting public — especially the children just starting in the sport — need to be informed about the dangers of lead.
About the project
“Loaded with Lead,” an ongoing, yearlong investigation into lead hazards at shooting ranges nationwide, is based on tens of thousands of pages of public records and scores of interviews. Among the interviews were those with range employees and owners, public-health and workplace-safety officials, regulators, shooters, construction workers, family members, and medical and firearms experts.
Reporters gathered several thousand enforcement records from Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries and from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to build custom inspection databases. After analysis, these data sets provided key findings. The national database of 201 commercial shooting ranges that had been inspected details more than 1,900 violations between 2004 and 2013. Because the violations were identified by regulation code, The Times consulted hundreds of federal and state occupational-safety standards to determine which violations were lead-related.
Reporters filed scores of public-records requests with public agencies in numerous states, including Washington, California, Alaska, Kentucky, Iowa, Florida and Illinois. Among the documents: workplace inspection files (including correspondence, emails, handwritten notes, photos, audio and videos); court files; police reports; and property records. They also obtained federal records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from several regional and state OSHA offices.
Reporters: Christine Willmsen, Lewis Kamb
Database reporter: Justin Mayo
Photographers: Marcus Yam, Mark Harrison
Developer: Thomas Wilburn
Graphic artists: Mark Nowlin, Garland Potts
Video editor: Danny Gawlowski
Project editor: James Neff
Copy editor: Laura Gordon
Photo editor: Fred Nelson
Print designer: Bob Warcup
Producer/web designer: Katrina Barlow
Researchers: Gene Balk, Miyoko Wolf
Reporting intern: Caitlin Cruz
Additional reporting: Keith Ervin
To access the original Seattle Times article click on the link below
LOADED WITH LEAD
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