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High lead levels linked to shooting range

Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Youth shooting programs at the Tanana Valley Sportsmen's Association shooting range have been halted after 10 members of the Lathrop High School rifle team were found to have high concentrations of lead in their blood.

Lead levels in the team members ranged from 17 to 37 micrograms per deciliter. The normal level is less than 10 micrograms in children.

''These levels are very high,'' said state epidemiologist John Middaugh with the Division of Public Health. ''They're way beyond what we expected to see.''

While the levels are not dangerous at this point, Middaugh recommended that junior shooting programs at the range be suspended. He advised the club to conduct a lead exposure risk assessment, which will include an analysis of the range's ventilation system, air circulation patterns and cleaning methods.

Had the shooters continued to use the range, they would risk lead poisoning, Middaugh said.

''We caught this before the levels got to the point where they became dangerous,'' he said.

Lead is a toxin that affects the brain, nervous system, digestive system, kidneys and the body's ability to make blood. An elevated blood lead level indicates lead is building up in the body faster than it can be removed. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous in children.

Indoor shooting ranges are ''a well-known potential source of lead exposure,'' Middaugh said. Slugs hitting the backstop create airborne lead dust, as do exploding primers containing lead styphnate and the friction from lead bullets against the gun barrel.

The dust can be inhaled or ingested. Improper range-cleaning methods and poor range ventilation can exacerbate the problem. It wasn't until the school district requested testing for local rifle teams a month ago that the problem was discovered.

The high lead levels found in the Lathrop shooters was a ''wake-up'' call but not exactly a shock, said Max Lyon, president of the Tanana Valley Sportsmen's Association.

''It's always had a ventilation problem, but we never knew the extent of the lead problem,'' Lyon said.

The club has posted the shooting range as a lead hazard area and has hired Nortech Environmental & Engineering Consultants of Fairbanks to inspect the range.

The range is swept after each shoot and mopped ''every couple weeks or so,'' Lyon said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game approached the school district to ask permission to test shooters on the Randy Smith Middle School and West Valley High rifle teams, which shoot at the Fish and Game indoor shooting range on College Road.

The tests were done after the state reported in a July bulletin that the chief range officer at the Tok High School rifle range had symptoms of lead poisoning. Shooters on the Tok team were tested and found to have high lead levels in their blood, most likely caused by lead dust being trapped in carpet that had been installed in the shooting area and from a poor ventilation system.

''Tok had problems and we wanted to make sure we didn't,'' said Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms.

In response, the school district encouraged all local rifle teams to be tested, said superintendent Ann Shortt. The Monroe Catholic and North Pole rifle teams also shoot at the Tanana Valley Sportsmen's Association range. While Lathrop shooters tested for elevated lead levels, members of the West Valley team showed normal lead levels-1 to 5 micrograms. The school district instructed teams to stop shooting at the range.

''Once we get any information there's a potential danger to a student, we take that kind of action,'' Shortt said.

The range is located in the basement of the club's log clubhouse. It was built in the early 1950s by club members who lifted the existing cabin off its foundation and dug out and hand-poured a concrete basement.

A ventilation system was installed in 1982 for the Arctic Winter Games, but it has leaks and is inefficient at best, club trustee Bruce Campbell said.

''It's an issue we've worked on for years,'' Campbell said of possible lead contamination.

The sportsmen's association is considering building a new range, but the nonprofit volunteer group is strapped for cash to do so, Lyon said.

The group has had to halt its junior shooting safety and education programs because of the lead contamination.

''We're definitely going to correct the problem and continue on with our junior programs,'' Lyon said.



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