Archive for the ‘Lead’ Category

Mother Jones

Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Toxic Water Nightmare


LeeAnne Walters’ tap water tested at 27 times the EPA limit for lead. The city offered her a garden hose.

On a chilly evening last March in Flint, Michigan, LeeAnne Walters was getting ready for bed when she heard her daughter shriek from the bathroom of the family’s two-story clapboard house. She ran upstairs to find 18-year-old Kaylie standing in the shower, staring at a clump of long brown hair that had fallen from her head.

Walters, a 37-year-old mother of four, was alarmed but not surprised—the entire family was losing hair. There had been other strange maladies over the previous few months: The twins, three-year-old Gavin and Garrett, kept breaking out in rashes. Gavin had stopped growing. On several occasions, 14-year-old JD had suffered abdominal pains so severe that Walters took him to the hospital. At one point, all of LeeAnne’s own eyelashes fell out.

The family, as you have probably guessed, was suffering from the effects of lead in Flint’s water supply—contamination that will have long-term, irreversible neurological consequences on the city’s children. The exposure has quietly devastated Flint since April 2014, when, in an effort to cut costs, a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source from Detroit’s water system over to the Flint River.

Elected officials toasted the change with glasses of water, but some longtime residents were skeptical, particularly since Flint-based General Motors had once used the river as a dumping ground. “I thought it was one of those Onion articles,” said Rhonda Kelso, a 52-year-old Flint native. “We already knew the Flint River was toxic waste.”

The lead exposure persisted for 17 months, despite repeated complaints from residents of this majority-black city. It is in no small part thanks to Walters, a no-nonsense stay-at-home mom with a husband in the Navy, that the Flint situation is now a full-blown national scandal complete with a class-action lawsuit, a federal investigation, National Guard troops, and many people—including Bernie Sanders—calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder. “Without [Walters] we would be nowhere,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, the head of pediatrics at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, told me. “She’s the crux of all of this.”

It was the summer of 2014 when Walters first realized something was very wrong: Each time she bathed the three-year-olds, they would break out in tiny red bumps. Sometimes, when Gavin had soaked in the tub for a while, scaly red skin would form across his chest at the water line. That November, after brown water started flowing from her taps, Walters decided it was time to stock up on bottled water.

The family developed a routine: For toothbrushing, a gallon of water was left by the bathroom sink. Crates of water for drinking and cooking crowded the kitchen. The adults and teenagers showered whenever possible at friends’ houses outside Flint; when they had to do it at home, they flushed out the taps first and limited showers to five minutes. Gavin and Garrett got weekly baths in bottled water and sponge baths with baby wipes on the other days. Slowly, the acute symptoms began to wane.

In January 2015, Flint officials sent out a notice declaring that the city’s water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, the byproduct of a disinfectant used to treat the water. Over time, these chemicals can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems. The advisory warned that sick and elderly people might be at an increased risk, but it said the water was otherwise safe to drink. “That was when I went to my first city council meeting,” Walters told me.

She wasn’t the only one. Flint residents showed up in droves, many complaining of stinky, tainted water coming out of their taps. They cited symptoms ranging from hair loss and rashes to memory and vision loss.

The problem was exacerbated by a lack of alternatives. Flint is one of America’s poorest cities, with 41 percent of its residents living in poverty. Many couldn’t afford bottled water or make the trek to obtain it—the city of 100,000 only has one major grocery store, on the far side of town. Kelso, a stroke survivor who lives with her 12-year-old daughter, relied on relatives to take her on water runs outside the city. “Sometimes there’s no water,” she said. “People who can buy water, they buy it up.”

Throughout most of 2015, the city and state maintained there was nothing to worry about. “I want to assure everyone that the city is sensitive to the public’s concerns,” Dayne Walling, then Flint’s mayor, declared at a press conference that January. “The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day.” Walters and others, dubbing themselves “water warriors,” began staging regular protests outside City Hall.

In February, at Walters’ urging, the city sent an employee to test the water coming from her taps. A few days later, she received a voice mail from the water department, warning her to keep her kids away from the water. “You know when somebody calls and you can just hear the panic in their voice? It was that,” Walters recalled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there’s no safe level of lead in drinking water. The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 parts per billion. The Walters’ tap water measured nearly 400 ppb.

Walters began compulsively researching lead exposure. She learned, to her horror, that the element has a particularly dramatic effect on young children, with long-term symptoms that can include a lower IQ, shortened attention span, and increases in violence and antisocial behavior—not to mention effects on reproductive and other organs. Studies also have tied higher lead levels to significantly increased rates of crime and teen pregnancy. The neurological and behavioral effects, notes the World Health Organization, “are believed to be irreversible.”

Walters rushed to get her children tested, and the results confirmed her worst fears: All four kids had been exposed to lead, and Gavin, who already had immune system problems, had bona fide lead poisoning, which put him at far greater risk. “I was hysterical,” said Walters. “At first, it was self-blame. And then there’s that anger: How are they letting them do this?”

The city’s initial response was to hook up a garden hose to her neighbor’s house to provide water for her family—officials claimed that the problem probably had to do with the Walters’ own plumbing. Just days after Walters got the results of her children’s blood tests, Gov. Snyder’s office assured residents that “Flint’s water system is producing water that meets all state and federal standards.” (Representatives from the city and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment for this story.)

Walters, who is trained as a medical assistant, began staying up late at night to go through reams of Flint water quality reports. She learned that Flint River water is more corrosive than Detroit tap water, and she wondered why Flint hadn’t applied standard chemicals—known as corrosion controls—to prevent the leaching of metal from its aging pipes into the water supply. This treatment is critical in a city such as Flint, where half of households are connected to a lead water line. She also didn’t understand why the city employee who tested her water ran the tap for several minutes before taking a sample. If something were building up in her pipes, wouldn’t flushing it out understate the results?

Frustrated with the city’s lackadaisical response, Walters called Miguel Del Toral, a manager at the EPA’s Midwest water division, last March. She explained that Flint didn’t appear to be using corrosion controls and that it was flushing pipes before conducting lead tests. She also emailed him water quality reports for the previous year. Del Toral was floored. “From a technical standpoint, there’s just no justification for the way Flint is conducting its tests,” he later told the American Civil Liberties Union. “Any credible scientist will tell you [the city’s] method is not the way to catch worst-case conditions.”

By contacting Del Toral, Walters unwittingly unleashed a chain of investigations. He introduced her to Marc Edwards, an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech who instructed her to collect new samples from her house without pre-flushing the pipes. In those samples, Edwards found lead concentrations of 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. “At that point, you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately,” he told the Detroit News.

Edwards put together a team to conduct field tests in Flint and to seek data from the city and the state. Del Toral, meanwhile, relayed his concerns to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, setting off a slow, bureaucratic back-and-forth between the state and the EPA. News that that the Virginia Tech team and the EPA were looking into the matter alarmed Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center. She began researching the blood lead levels of Flint’s youngest children before and after the change of water supply, comparing them with children living elsewhere in Genesee County.

The results from both investigations came back last September. Edwards’ tests suggested that one in six Flint homes had lead water levels exceeding the EPA’s safety threshold. Hanna-Attisha found that the rate of children younger than five with elevated lead concentrations in their blood had doubled—and in some areas, tripled—following the switch to Flint River water. The effect, she told CNN, would be analogous to “drinking through lead-painted straws.”

The day after Hanna-Attisha’s findings came out, the city released a lead advisory. State officials remained skeptical, insisting that the results were incorrect and that Flint’s water met federal standards. But by mid-October, after weeks of deliberations and lots of bad press, Gov. Snyder ordered that Flint’s water supply be switched back to the Detroit system. “It recently has become clear that our drinking-water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint,” said Dan Wyant, the state’s Environmental Quality Director, who resigned not long after. “Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not.”

Earlier this month, Snyder deployed National Guard troops to work alongside Red Cross volunteers, delivering bottled water, water filters, and lead-testing kits to Flint residents—who still can’t drink from the tap thanks to the corroded lead pipes. On Saturday, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, entitling the city to federal disaster relief funds. Several residents, including Rhonda Kelso, have joined together in a class-action suit targeting city and state officials, including ex-Mayor Walling and Gov. Snyder. The US Attorney’s Office for Michigan’s Eastern District has launched its own investigation into the crisis.

The Walters no longer live in Flint—they moved to Virginia in October, partly in response to the contamination. But the water issue continues to consume LeeAnne, who regularly Skypes into meetings and fields calls with politicians and activists. She recently traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with EPA officials. Other Flint moms seek her out for advice; one telephoned after tests found that her 15-year-old daughter had the liver function of a 75-year-old. Walters won’t let her family drink Virginia tap water until she’s had it tested—or eat at a restaurant without reviewing its health reports in advance.

At five years old, Gavin weighs a mere 35 pounds to his twin brother’s 53.

The hardest thing, she says, is not knowing how the lead exposure will affect her kids in the long term. Gavin was the “party animal” of the twins, but lately he’s lost his appetite and sleeps more. At five, he weighs a mere 35 pounds to Garrett’s 53, and he mispronounces words that he could once handle. Garrett was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Both boys continue to ask, when handed a cup of water, whether it is “good water or bad water.”

When I asked Walters what she makes of all the national attention, she paused. “Everybody’s been asking, ‘How do you feel now that people are finally listening? Do you feel satisfied?'”

Then she was crying. “Every time I get a call from another mother whose child is sick,” she managed, “it doesn’t feel like a victory.”

Meet the mom who helped expose Flint’s toxic water nightmare

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Potential Health Risks to DOD FIRING-RANGE PERSONNEL from Recurrent Lead Exposure

Committee on Potential Health Risks from Recurrent
Lead Exposure of DOD Firing Range Personnel

Committee on Toxicology

Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology

Division on Earth and Life Studies



Washington, D.C.


“…High risk of heart disease, kidney damage, and dementia.”

“A review of the epidemiologic and toxicologic data allowed the committee to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence that the OSHA standard provides inadequate protection for DOD firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by the general industry standard. Specifically, the premise that maintaining BLLs under 40 μg/dL for a working lifetime will protect workers adequately is not valid; by inference, the OSHA PEL and action level are also inadequate for protecting firing-range workers. The committee found sufficient evidence to infer causal relationships between BLLs under 40 μg/dL and adverse neurologic, hematopoietic, renal, reproductive, and cardio-vascular effects. The committee also found compelling evidence of developmental effects in offspring exposed to lead in utero and during breastfeeding, and this raises additional concerns about exposures of women of childbearing age….

Despite changes in military tactics and technology, proficiency in the handling of weapons remains a cornerstone in the training of the modern combat soldier. Modern military forces are trained on one or more small arms, including handguns, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns. Many of the projectiles used in military small arms contain lead. Exposure to lead during weapons training on firing ranges therefore is an important occupational-health concern.

Lead is a ubiquitous metal in the environment, and its adverse effects on human health are well documented. The nervous system is an important target of lead toxicity, which causes adverse cognitive, mood, and psychiatric effects in the central nervous system of adults; causes various peripheral nervous system effects; and has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Lead exposure also causes anemia, nephrotoxicity, a variety of adverse reproductive and developmental effects, small increases in blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension particularly in middle-aged and older people, and various effects in other organ systems, including joint pain and gastrointestinal pain (ATSDR 2007; EPA 2012; NTP 2012).”


1After the committee completed its evaluation and released the prepublication draft of this report, the Army submitted data on BLLs for Department of the Army civilian personnel working at shoot houses. The Army’s submission can be obtained by contacting the National Research Council’s Public Access Records Office at (202) 334-3543 or paro@nas.edu.”


• Characterization of exposure on firing ranges. The committee focused its attention on airborne lead exposures that are most likely to occur on DOD firing ranges. Measurements and evaluations conducted at DOD ranges were used primarily and were supplemented with information on other types of firing ranges.


Potential Health Risks to DOD FIRING-RANGE PERSONNEL from Recurrent Lead Exposure





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The Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols

By the time the PCB problem was isolated in January 1976, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency believed that Outboard Marine was delivering approximately nine to ten tons of PCBs to the harbor each day. The PCB content of the sludge at the bottom of the harbor ranged from 240,000 to 500,000 parts per million depending on when and where the sample was taken. That means that either one in two or one in four grains of sand or silt at the bottom of the harbor was not actually sand or silt, but was a PCB instead. page 43

Waukegan would take its turn on the national stage two years later, in 1984,when a U.S. Environmental Protection official, Rita Lavelle, was accused of secretly meeting with lakefront polluters in an effort to strike a cleanup deal that heavily favored industry… In the aftermath of the scandal, the full extent of Waukegan’s chemical contamination was revealed… Eventually, three separate Superfund sites, named after the 1980 federal legislation that allocated funds to clean them up, were designated in Waukegan. Two of the sites are adjacent to the lake… In addition, more than a dozen other sites form what federal and state regulators call an expanded study area, which stretches along the lakefront from one end of town to the other. These smaller sites contain the waste products from a tannery, a steel company, a paint factory, a pharmaceutical company, and a scrap yard. Together these sites contain not just PCBs, but an alphabet soup of pollutants. “Just about every chemical we know to be dangerous to human health is in one of those sites,” Says Margaret Quinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in human exposure assessment. In addition to PCBs, these chemicals include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, arsenic. lead, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, vinyl chloride, and ammonia. Various chemicals among these have been associated with reproductive diseases, learning and attention deficits in children, birth defects, immune system deficiencies, and some forms of cancer.

Was there a relationship between my sister’s cancer and the toxins of our childhood? My sister certainly thought so. And many other people have suspected, often correctly, that elements in their environment have had an effect on their health. Yet because of the long time it takes for a cancer to develop and because of relative mobility of our lives today, it can be challenging to establish a casual link between a disease and its origin.

pages 5 -6

“Ovaries are approximately three centimeters long by one and one-half centimeters wide by one centimeter thick,” writes Ethel Sloan in, “The Biology of Women.”… Whichever edition you consult will tell you that the ovary is about the size of an almond and that it produces the female hormone estrogen. During the monthly menstrual cycle, each ovary forces an egg through a wall of tissue and afterward repairs that rupture in a process called ovulation. “The ovary is no beauty,” writes Natalie Angier in “Woman: An Intimate Geography, “It is scarred and pitted, for each cycle of ovulation leaves behind a blemish where an egg follicle has been emptied of its contents. The older the woman, the more scarred her ovaries will be. It is this continual bursting and repairing–part and parcel of the ovarian life cycle–that makes the ovary vulnerable to cancer.

Scientists have long theorized that as cells multiply each month to repair the breach in the ovarian wall, more opportunities are created for mistakes in the DNA copying process, which in turn increases the chances of a malignant mutation. More ovulations, in other words, mean more chances for mistakes.

Risk factors for the disease therefore include never giving your ovaries a break by being pregnant or having a child. The other risk factor is having a close relative with the disease. That would be my sister, of course, and that would bring our story back home….

Doctors at this hospital and elsewhere have long speculated that there were significant environmental factors associated with ovarian cancer. The vagina provides a runway to the ovaries not simply for sperm but for many other substances as well. Significantly, women who have their tubes tied experience a lower rate of ovarian cancer than those who do not. Some have theorized that this may be because the pathways to the ovaries has been blocked, keeping outside agents at bay.

For example, some researchers have found a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer–though several other studies have produced conflicting results. Some early forms of talcum may have contained asbestos and thus given researchers their positive findings. Indeed, at least one retrospective study found a much higher disease rate among women who used talc prior to 1960 than those who used is after–giving at least some credence to the idea that the use of asbestos-laden talc increases a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.

My sister speculated that asbestos had contributed to her illness. A group of naturally occurring fibrous materials that are fire-resistant, asbestos has been thought to cause adverse health effects since the first century. Yet, as writer Paul Brodeur tells us in his book on asbestos, Outrageous Misconduct, its role in causing the disease asbestosis, a noncancerous condition in which the lungs scar so badly that they won’t expand and contract properly, was not well established in medical literature until the 1970s.

In the years before my sister died, when I was an editor for the Harvard Business Review, I worked on a piece written by Bill Sells, the man who had run the Johns-Manville plants in Waukegan in the early 1970s–a time when deaths from asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases were beginning to occur in the workforce at an alarming rate. After noting that his job included the unenviable task of visiting his sick and dying employees at the local hospital, he offered this description of his first visit to the factory: “The plant lay at the back of a sprawling complex built in the 1920s. Its view of Lake Michigan was obscured by a landfill several stories high. A road wound through this mountain of asbestos-laden scrap, and as I drove through it for the first time I stopped to watch a bulldozer crush a 36-inch sewer pipe. A cloud of dust swirled around my car.” Inside the plant, he said, he found “asbestos-laden dust coating almost every visible surface.”

An EPA official charged with overseeing the cleanup of the Johns-Manville plant, Brad Bradley, has a similar recollection. Standing at the edge of the 350-acre Superfund site that overlooks Lake Michigan, Bradley recalled his first visit there in 1982. He remembers asking an asbestos expert where he thought they would find the fibers. “I think they are everywhere,” said the expert. Indeed, virtually anywhere on the site that Bradley scuffed the ground with his boot, he found the telltale fibers.

People are more likely to connect the fiber with asbestosis than with ovarian cancer. However, a thirty-year study of nearly two thousand women who worked with asbestos while manufacturing gas masks during World War II showed these women to be seven times more likely to die from ovarian cancer than a control group. My sister’s medical history seems to tell a different story, though, and the link between asbestos and ovarian cancer in general does not appear to be a strong one. The ovarian cancer specialist I saw at the clinic was quick to point out that my sister’s record indicated that her cancer was preceded by endometriosis.

The phrase “painful periods” does not begin to describe the torture that my mother and sister endured during menstruation. White and sweating, doubled over with pain, they retreated to the bed or the couch until the pain and the bleeding passed. When I recounted my mother’s experience, the ovarian cancer specialist suggests that my mother also likely suffered from endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a once rare disease that is now common. When the disease was first named and discovered in 1921 by a New York physician, there were only twenty reports of the illness in the medical literature. Today, the National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 5.5 million women suffer from the disease in the United States, and as many as 89 million women may have it worldwide. An exact number is hard to come by, since the disease can only properly be diagnosed during surgery. Still, about one-third of women of childbearing age suffer some symptoms–including pelvic pain and infertility–and in the United States at least, the average age of onset has been declining…

Endometriosis is a complex condition, and no one is certain what causes it. Some scientists believe it is an immune system disorder. Others believe that women with endometriosis lack the ability to shed cells that have migrated and are growing where they should not be. Other scientists have focused on a genetic component of the disease since it can run in families. A woman with a sister or mother with endometriosis, for example, is three to seven times more likely to get the disease.

The mechanisms of endometriosis are not that different from those that create cancer: they involve cell proliferation, the migration of cells, and a change in their cellular nature. Endometriosis grows unchecked and invades surrounding tissues, and the body’s immune system fails to rid itself of the misplaced lesions. In the same way, the body fails to rid itself of cancerous lesions.

It is often but not always the case that the kind of cancer my sister suffered from, ovarian clear-cell adenocarcinoma, is preceded by endometriosis, and many believe that there is a relationship between the two diseases. Some scientists believe that endometriosis–in certain cases–is a kind of precancerous condition, and others believe that the two diseases spring forth in unison. Other experts theorize that the endometrial cells themselves drive the proliferation of cancer once it has started by producing their own estrogen. Each lesion is capable of increasing the local production of estrogen, so that once the disease takes hold it is capable of feeding itself.

In my sister’s case, cancerous growths arose within her endometrial lesions. Whatever the exact mechanism of disease development, women with the type of ovarian cancer that my sister suffered from have higher rates of endometriosis that the general female population. In one study, about 70 percent of the women with clear-cell ovarian cancer also had endometriosis.

Scientists have long suspected that chemicals of the type found in Waukegan–dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)–play a role in human endometriosis.

pages 75 – 81

Carson died in 1964, but her work and her life serve as a warning to everyone who struggles with cancer. “As we pour millions into research and invest all our hopes in vast programs to find cures for established cases of cancer,” she wrote, “we are neglecting the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek to cure.”

Carson’s favorite quote, from Abraham Lincoln, can be found snuggled into her almost daily letters to Freeman, where she explains what keeps her going through her treatments and on to finish her groundbreaking book. It reads: “To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”

page 122

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Inhibition of progenitor cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus of rats following post-weaning lead exposure.

Schneider JS1, Anderson DW, Wade TV, Smith MG, Leibrandt P, Zuck L, Lidsky TI.
Author information

Although lead is a potent developmental neurotoxin, the effects of postnatal lead exposure on progenitor cell proliferation in the hippocampus has not been examined. Postnatal day 25 rats were fed a lead containing diet (1500 ppm lead acetate) for 30-35 days and administered bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU, 50 mg/kg, i.p.) during the last 5 days of lead exposure. Animals were killed 24 h after the last BrdU injection. Proliferation of new cells in the subgranular zone and dentate gyrus was significantly decreased in lead-exposed rats compared to control animals that ate a similar diet devoid of lead. These results suggest that postnatal lead exposure can have significant deleterious effects on progenitor cell proliferation and thus the structure and function of the hippocampus.


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MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic Documentary on Lead Poisoning in the US



The question on many minds today: what is the source of the sudden, alarming rise in the number of American children with ADD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum symptoms and similar neurological disorders—expensive impairments/disabilities that create challenges for families and cost our society more than $50,000,000,000 annually?

MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic is the first documentary film that undertakes an intellectually rigorous, emotionally compelling and illuminating inquiry into a hidden epidemic that impacts one in three American children today. Tamara Rubin, an Oregon mother whose children were poisoned, travels the country talking with parents and top experts across many fields—uncovering surprising answers.

To access the film’s website click on the link below
misLEAD the movie

“Ammunition that contains lead-based primer or lead bullets will create smoke that contains lead. This lead can be inhaled or can settle on the floor, counters, doorknobs, and other surfaces in the range. Shooters and instructors can ingest lead if they touch contaminated surfaces and then eat, drink, or smoke without washing their hands. Range operators are at higher risk of lead exposure than recreational shooters – while periodic cleaning of the range is recommended, this activity can stir up settled dust and persons conducting the cleaning can be overexposed if they are not protected.” Firearm use should be added to potential lead exposures for children.

Taken from The Commonwealth of Massachusetts “Shooting Range Lead Safety Precautions”


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Where does lead go? Into bones.

By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY


Lead was once so pervasive that, even three decades after the government banned the chemical in paint and began phasing it out of gasoline, the country has still not shaken free of its legacy.
Much of the lead that once swirled around us has been lurking in the most intimate of hiding places: our own bodies.

Scientists have long known that lead, like calcium, is stored in our bones. Only recently, however, have doctors begun to investigate what happens when that long-stored lead is released.

Lead leaches into the blood whenever the bones release calcium — during pregnancy, breast-feeding, menopause and, for men and women, old age, says Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who helped launch the study of bone lead in the early 1990s.

Once in the blood, lead’s poisonous effects spread throughout the body. Research by Silbergeld and others shows that lead may contribute to many ailments associated with aging: hypertension, kidney disease and possibly dementia.

Lead seeps into the womb and breast milk, too, exposing developing babies when their brains are most vulnerable, says Adrienne Ettinger, a leading expert in bone lead at the Harvard School of Public Health.

That means lead could pose risks for Americans for decades to come, says Howard Hu, chairman of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan Schools of Public Health and Medicine.

Not all Americans are at equal risk, says Mary Jean Brown, chief of the lead-poisoning prevention branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Doctors worry most about those who are exposed to lead at work or who grew up in countries that still use leaded gas.

Mom’s lead level affects baby

Women of childbearing age today — who were children during the leaded-gas phase-out from 1973 to 1995 — have the lowest blood lead levels of any demographic group, according to the CDC. And the number of children ages 1 to 5 with elevated blood lead — defined as 10 micrograms per deciliter or more — has declined from 88% in the 1970s to 1.6% in 2005.

Yet sophisticated tests show that even people with little lead in their blood could have substantial amounts stored in their skeletons, Hu says. And because of lead’s potential to damage the central nervous system, Ettinger says, “any amount of lead to the fetus is not a good thing.”

Studies show that babies born to mothers with high bone and blood levels tend to be smaller, gain less weight in the first month of life and get lower scores on tests of mental development at age 2.

Lead impairs communication, attention, memory, abstract thinking and fine motor skills, says John Rosen, a pediatrics professor at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center.

Mothers with high lead exposure can pass on a toxic legacy. Women who survived lead poisoning as children are three times as likely as other mothers to have children with learning disabilities, Hu says.

Lead poses risks for mothers as well. In a 2002 study of pregnant women in inner-city Los Angeles, those with higher bone lead levels had higher rates of hypertension, which can endanger the unborn baby and, in severe cases, the mother.

Accumulated lead can cause problems throughout a woman’s life, Silbergeld and others say. For example, lead may increase women’s risk of heart disease, especially after menopause, when bones begin to thin and lead once more leaches into the blood.

Silbergeld’s research shows that postmenopausal women have significantly more blood lead than younger women, even when they have had no additional environmental exposure. Blood lead levels may rise as much as 25% in the five years after menopause.

Men aren’t immune to the dangers of bone lead, either. They also lose bone mass as they age. Hu’s work shows that older men with high lead levels are more likely to develop kidney problems.

In midlife and old age, lead may also contribute to “cognitive decline,” or deterioration in the ability to think, learn and remember, says Brian Schwartz, also a professor at Hopkins’ school of public health.

In studies over the past seven years, Schwartz has found that adults with high lead exposure lost more of their cognitive skills than their unexposed peers. Men with higher bone lead levels had lower scores in manual dexterity, decision-making and verbal skills than men with lower levels.

Overall, patients with large bone lead accumulations appear to suffer from “accelerated aging,” Schwartz says.

In his studies, people in the top quarter of lead exposure function as if one to five years older than those in the bottom range of exposure. That has led Schwartz to reconsider the concept of what doctors typically describe as “normal” age-related cognitive decline. Much of that decline, he says, may result not from age, but from lead.

In search of answers

Researchers are looking for ways to protect children and adults alike.

Those concerned about lead-related heart disease have many ways — from medication to exercise and healthy eating — to prevent, treat and monitor the condition, Brown says.

Ettinger is working with the CDC on recommendations, expected to be released within the next year, to help doctors identify and treat mothers and babies at greatest risk.

Blood tests for lead are simple to perform, doctors say, and many insurance plans pay for them.

Brown says babies exposed in the womb can still catch up to their peers “if you can control the lead hazards that the baby comes home to.” Children exposed in the womb are at much greater risk if they continue to have high lead levels by age 2, Brown says.

At-risk mothers also may benefit from calcium supplements, which reduce the body’s need to draw the mineral out of bone, Ettinger says. Research shows that nursing mothers who take 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day lowered their blood lead levels up to 20% and reduced the amount of lead in their breast milk up to 10%.

Hu’s recent research suggests that calcium supplements may also alleviate high blood pressure in men and women with elevated bone lead levels.

To view the original story click on the link below

Where does lead go? Into bones By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

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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.

Lax regulation

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.

Vulnerable volunteers

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.


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.

“Severely contaminated”

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.

Dirty work

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.

Children overexposed

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.

Lingering effects

“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.


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.

Pricey protection

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

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