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Get the Lead Out

Get the Lead Out

202nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company
Georgia Army National Guard
Marietta, Georgia

Firearms training is one of the most common military activities practiced by all Soldiers. Weapons proficiency is a hallmark of combat readiness during which the principles of risk management (RM) are thoroughly planned, rehearsed and executed. However, an often-overlooked hazard associated with firearms training can be found in the process that follows every live-fire event — weapons cleaning.

Soldiers typically gather around a collection of cleaning tools, shop rags and CLP (firearms lubricant) while casually conducting the process of disassembling their firearms to the individual components and vigorously removing carbon buildup on the metal until the weapons look new. This level of discipline has been ingrained in them since Basic Combat Training and reinforced in every competent unit they have served. What their drill sergeants likely failed to address is the hazard associated with the toxic metal lead. A lack of lead awareness can result in health issues, not just for the Soldiers, but for the most vulnerable and precious asset they have — their children.

When considering lead dangers associated with firearms, we usually think of the bullets being the most hazardous. But we also must take into account the other sources of lead related to shooting, which can be found in the gasses generated as a byproduct of the combustion process when depressing the trigger on a live round. Lead styphnate is a chemical found in the primer of every small-arms cartridge in the military’s explosive ordnance inventory. It is a sensitive primary explosive that initiates the combustion of the smokeless powder within the brass casing. And while it is found in relatively small quantities per round, the combustion process of discharging a cartridge forces the lead-containing gases into the shooter’s breathing zone.

Luckily, the lead concentration is typically small enough to not cause much concern for the Soldier. However, the lead-containing gasses settle onto their body armor and uniform. As more rounds are discharged, more lead accumulates. That same uniform is then worn when shooting ends and Soldiers turn their attention to cleaning their weapons.

Typically, weapons cleaning takes place on a table or other raised, level surface. As the Soldier separates each component and brushes or rubs the carbon buildup from the parts, they may notice black, soot-looking debris falling onto the table surface and floor beneath it. This debris contains lead from the ignition of the primer that wasn’t discharged into the air. Once finished cleaning, lubricating and reassembling their weapons, the Soldiers will clean the work area of any visible debris. But what about the lead that’s transferred to their uniforms or the bottoms of boots? They’re likely worn home, where the lead could easily be transferred to other surfaces such as the interior of their vehicle, their flooring and even their children’s toys, food and sleeping surfaces.

The dangers of lead for children are valid. Young children tend to put familiar objects in their mouth such as stuffed animals, toys and their own fingers — the same fingers and hands that will typically be used for crawling on the floor that dirty boots walk on and grabbing the same uniform that was worn during a day at the range. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, relatively low levels of lead can cause spontaneous abortion and low birth weight in pregnant women. In addition, infants and toddlers can suffer from substantial intellectual and academic deficiencies and problem behaviors due to lead exposure.

As Army safety and occupational health leaders continue to address workplace hazards, they should consider more than just the individual Soldier, but also the most vulnerable members of their families. Controls associated with lead toxicity in firearms activities can be as simple as requiring Soldiers change from their soiled clothing before departing for the duty day and recommending cleaning protocols for boots and uniforms when they get home. Additionally, leaders should consider enforcing the use of disposable gloves when cleaning firearms and providing lead-removing soap when range activities are anticipated. By bringing awareness to the dangers of lead toxicity associated with shooting and cleaning firearms, leaders gain the confidence and trust of their Soldiers, as well as demonstrate how the risk management process extends beyond work to protect your loved ones at home.


  • 19 May 2024
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 260
  • Comments: 0