Business is booming for gun ranges in the U.S., where 40 million Americans per year engage in recreational shooting. But when shooters use lead-based ammunition, they spread vapor and toxins that have made thousands of people ill. Federal and state regulators are doing little to ensure that ranges are kept clean.

As the Seattle Times reports, workers, shooters and their family members have become contaminated at gun ranges due to poor ventilation and coming into contact with lead-coated surfaces:

Those most at risk are employees who work around firearms, unknowingly inhaling lead-tinged dust and fumes as they instruct customers and clean shooting ranges of spent ammunition. Lead exposure can cause an array of health problems — from nausea and fatigue to organ damage, mental impairment and even death.

Even those who've never stepped inside a gun range have become sick. Employees have carried lead residue into their homes on their skin, clothes, shoes and work gear, inadvertently contaminating family members, including children, who are the most vulnerable to lead's debilitating health effects.

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Lead exposure at gun ranges is "a serious problem and we think it could be quite widespread," said Elana Page, a medical officer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Some firing ranges cater to children, they have birthday parties and special events."

By law, owners of gun ranges are responsible for protecting employees from lead-polluted workplaces by following rules and regulations on air quality, surface contamination, safety gear and various other standards. But according to an analysis of the records of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, only 201 of the nation's 6,000 commercial gun ranges have been inspected during the last 10 years. Among those inspected, 86% violated at least one lead-related safety standard.

For its part, National Rifle Association says the problem is exaggerated:

Publicly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) dismisses contentions by health officials that lead is a widespread health and safety problem at shooting ranges. "The issue of lead problems for indoor ranges is extremely rare," said Susan Recce, an NRA official. To their members, the lobbying group encourages owners to clean up their ranges to avoid inviting government scrutiny.

But the problem of lead exposure need not be part of the debate raging over gun rights in America, said Kentucky firearms instructor Colleene Barnett, who suffered from lead poisoning.

"We need people to educate folks," she said. "The last thing you need is to stop shooting — and for people to hold lead against shooting as a sport."

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