First lead exposure study puts poorly designed shooting ranges under fire

Cape Town | Blood lead levels in users of shooting ranges found to be more than four times higher than in a control group.  Published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ), research conducted by the South African Medical Research Council’s Environment & Health Research Unit found that the highest blood lead concentrations were determined at poorly designed shooting ranges, and where housekeeping practices and hygiene facilities were inadequate. 

“Internationally, shooting ranges have been under scrutiny for decades, but to our knowledge this is the first study of lead exposure in shooting ranges in South Africa,” says Professor Angela Mathee, Director of the SAMRC’s Environment & Health Research Unit. 

Lead is a toxic metal that may cause serious physical and mental health problems. In children, even low blood lead levels have been associated with lowered IQ and poor school performance, as well as hearing loss and difficulty in concentrating. In adults, lead has been linked to lowered fertility, kidney damage, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Lead exposure in childhood has also been associated with aggression and violent behaviour later in life.

Tibor Szana, Chief Inspector of Occupational Health and Safety at the Department of Labour, expressed concern about high blood lead levels seen in some shooting range workers. “The Department of Labour is currently developing a strategy to assist managers in the creation of safer working environments in shooting ranges”, said Szana. 

The South African Police Service responded proactively to the study by partnering with the research team to develop a lead hazard education intervention for police officers who regularly train at shooting ranges.  The intervention is currently being rolled out to police and public shooting ranges nation-wide.

Emissions during the use of guns and lead bullets, as well as the melting of lead to mould lead bullets, may lead to inhalation of lead vapour. Lead particles that have settled on surfaces in shooting ranges, may contaminate hands and end up being ingested (for example during eating, chewing nails or sucking fingers).

“This is a health concern for shooters themselves, especially those with low levels of awareness of the hazards and pathways of exposure to lead. It is also a concern for their families, since lead particles may be transferred from shooting ranges into homes on the hair, skin, clothing and shoes of shooting range users and workers”, concluded Mathee.

The SAMRC’s Environment and Health Research Unit conducts research on environmental factors that affect the health of the people of South Africa, especially those living in conditions of poverty. The E&HRU has three key research programmes:

  • climate and health;
  • exposure to Persistent Toxic Substances (PTS); and
  • urban health.

Additional information on the E&HRU may be accessed at:

Release date: 
Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 13:54
Dr Alfred Thutloa
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