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Firing range workers face lead poisoning risk

Dec. 3, 2012 - 03:47PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 3, 2012 - 03:47PM  |  
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Outdated safety standards put military personnel and civilians working on firing ranges at risk for lead poisoning, a panel of the country's top scientist have found.

The National Research Council released a report Monday saying acceptable levels of lead in the bloodstream established by Occupational Health and Safety Administration in 1978 don't protect workers — any workers, not just military personnel — from possible kidney, heart, brain and reproductive disorders, including birth defects, associated with lead exposure.

The council, consisting of government, academic and civilian researchers, said more is known about the health effects of lead exposure, especially at low levels, than 35 years ago.

"There is overwhelming evidence that the OSHA standard provides inadequate protection for [Defense Department] firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by the general industry standard. Specifically, the premise that maintaining blood lead levels under 40 [micrograms per deciliter of blood] for a working lifetime will protect workers adequately is not valid," the committee reported.

The Pentagon requested the report to see whether current exposure standards for lead protected workers at DoD firing ranges.

NRC members said they weren't able to determine the actual risk of health problems related to lead exposure because the Pentagon keeps little data on the blood lead levels of its workers.

But they found the air measurements for lead at some military firing ranges often exceeded current OSHA standards, and at some Army, Navy and Air Force ranges, "by several orders of magnititude."

At high concentrations and over time, airborne lead can elevate blood lead levels and deposit in bones, causing health problems.

At high levels, lead can cause cancer and serious neurological problems, including tremors and brain damage. At low levels, it can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease or changes in balance, eyesight and hearing.

The panelists said DoD should take measures to protect range personnel by drafting guidelines stricter than OSHA's current recommendations and monitor ranges to ensure they meet the stricter standards.

The committee also recommended the Pentagon conduct medical surveillance at its ranges to guide their risk management decisions.

The jobs that expose firing range personnel to the highest amounts of airborne lead dust were pit cleanup and maintenance, range cleaning and active firing inside shoot houses, according to the http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18249">report.

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