Lead exposure at nation’s gun ranges poses ‘a serious problem’
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 suburban Seattle doubled over in pain and vomited.
The cause of their suffering: lead poisoning. The source: dirty gun ranges.
Indoor, outdoor, public and private, gun ranges dot the national landscape like bullet holes riddling a 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: firing lead-based ammunition spreads vapor and dust filled with lead, an insidious toxin.
Thousands of 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 range workers who inhale airborne lead as they instruct customers and clean up spent ammunition. Lead exposure can cause an array of health problems — from nausea and fatigue to organ damage, mental impairment and even death.
Employees have carried lead residue into their homes on their skin, clothes, shoes and work gear, inadvertently contaminating family members, including children, those 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.
By law, owners are responsible for protecting employees from lead-polluted workplaces by following 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, records show.
The nation has an estimated 6,000 commercial indoor and outdoor gun ranges, but over the past decade, only 201 have been inspected, 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.
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.
OSHA typically doesn’t examine a gun range unless it receives a complaint or a blood-test report that shows an employee has been overexposed to lead. 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, public records show.
In 14 states, including Alaska, Iowa and Louisiana, federal and state occupational agencies didn’t inspect a single commercial gun range from 2004 to 2013, The Times found.
Thousands of other U.S. ranges are volunteer-run clubs and aren’t subject to OSHA inspections because they have no employees.
One volunteer who regularly cleaned a club in Iowa lost feeling in his hands after chronic lead exposure and now has trouble doing basic tasks like picking up coins or firing a gun accurately.
Publicly, the National Rifle Association dismisses contentions by health officials that lead is a widespread health and safety problem at shooting ranges. To their members, the lobbying group encourages owners to clean up their ranges to avoid inviting government scrutiny.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which analyzes occupational hazards for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says 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.”
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, earning $9 an hour. Nightly, he swept up casings from spent ammunition in the 12 firing lanes, pushing a broom and kicking up more lead dust.
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.
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 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.
According to the CDC, lead can cause organ damage and other problems at levels 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 dozens of employees who’d already suffered significant health problems before reaching that threshold.
OSHA has yet to adopt more stringent lead regulations. “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.
When Maddox returned to work after several weeks, he assumed Underwood had fixed the lead problems. But Maddox found not much had changed, so he alerted pregnant women and kids that they shouldn’t enter the range because of lead exposure.
Maddox’s wife 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 an April 2007 resignation letter.
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 he had overexposed his employees to lead. The agency cited the range with dozens of violations and fined it $461,400, the highest amount imposed against a U.S. gun range in the past decade.
But in a later settlement, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet lowered the fine to $7,200 because of “financial hardship.”
OSHA and state occupational agencies often reduced fines for gun-range owners if they were cooperative or showed an inability to pay.
From the moment the doors opened in October 2005 at the new Champion Arms indoor shooting range in suburban Seattle, 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 as they fired at targets.
But the exhaust system instead blew toxic dust clouds back on unwitting shooters as well as into retail areas of the business, where workers spent most of their day.
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 that July to investigate.
Air sampling showed Champion Arms workers were being exposed to airborne lead above safe standards. Using testing swipes, 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.
Labor and Industries Division also learned one of the owners had even used a leaf blower to clean the range.
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 was putting workers and customers at risk, officials with L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) debated whether to shut down the business. They could issue an “order and notice of immediate restraint,” which forces a business to close until it fixes its problems.
“This is the worse (sic) indoor firing range DOSH has investigated certainly recently and potentially ever,” Cheryl Christian, a state L&I expert on lead issues, wrote later in an email to a state lawyer.
But L&I management decided not to close the range and later couldn’t explain why.
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.
Finally, in October 2007, Champion Arms agreed to the state’s findings and penalties, was put on a six-month payment plan for the fines, and promised to fix any outstanding violations in 15 days.
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.
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.
Several months later, L&I again cited Champion Arms for 15 violations, including six “Failure to Abate Serious” citations, and fined it $42,400. Champion appealed and stayed open. A year later, L&I hit Champion with 10 more citations and $10,600 in fines.
Through a manager, Geiss declined to comment. Wangsness died earlier this year.
In 2012, Washington became only the second U.S. state to require employers to correct serious workplace hazards during an appeal. When L&I told lawmakers why the change was needed, it pointed to Champion Arms.
Federal OSHA, the nation’s largest occupational-safety enforcer, handles workplace oversight for most states, with 21 states enforcing their own workplace safety programs, which typically mirror the federal program.
Even when OSHA 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 found the range had 27 serious violations and hit it with $111,000 in fines.
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 last 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 told The Times in March, a month before he died. “But if Illinois Gun Works don’t exist, what are they going to do, go after McDonald’s? I wish them luck.”
For the entire “Loaded with Lead” series: www.seattletimes.com/gunranges