The Lead In Bullets Is Creating More Pollution And Public Health Hazards Than Anyone Is Really Willing To Admit


Photo: Flickr/controlarms

This year, the Norwegian Armed Forces (NAF) selected Nammo, a Nordic Ammunition manufacturing company, as its small ammunition supplier, converting to completely lead-free munitions. The deal, worth almost $100 million, was met with little fanfare and even less media coverage. Nammo went on to encourage the British Armed Forces to do the same, to which the Ministry of defence, for all intents and purposes, politely refused,  BBC News reports. While the story garnered little attention, the topic it addressed maybe should have.

As most of us are aware, lead exposure is no joke. Before 1978, lead based paints were used in everything from homes to offices to traffic lines. Once it was discovered that the heavy metal could cause damage to children’s nervous systems, kidneys, stunt their development and growth, and cause reproductive problems in adults, its use was discontinued. The ills of ingesting it were widely spread through PSAs, most people recalling the warning to make sure to watch for your kids eating paint chips (They taste sweet if you were unaware). The government and EPA cracked down on pollution containing the substance, and anyone who bought a house made before 1978 was notified, by law, of the possibility of its presence in their colorfully adorned walls. 

On April 17, 2001, it seemed the battle against lead had hit a major breakthrough. President George W. Bush and the EPA upheld a Clinton administrative rule requiring any business releasing 100 pounds of lead or more a year to report said pollution to the government. However, one business present throughout the country and constituting a substantial percentage of lead released into the environment each year wasn’t included: firing ranges. Why? Because firing a gun isn’t categorized as “discarding” lead, the wording used within the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

A 2001 report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates there are about 1,813 firing ranges in America. Using a modest average of 15 customers shooting 50 rounds a day, the EWG calculates nine million pounds of lead are released into the environment every year. Only metal mining and manufacturing have higher figures. In addition, firing ranges don’t have to follow any regulations within the Clean Air and Water Act, granting them immunity from the geographical restrictions requiring other industries to obtain a permit to discharge lead near bodies of water.

The military, constituting even more domestic lead pollution than firing ranges, enjoys similar “loopholes” to avoid regulation.

By declaring domestic military bases “federal reservations”, local and state environmental authorities and regulations don’t apply. This is a significant exemption, considering that the Department of defence is believed to be the world’s largest polluter, adding more contaminants into the environment than the top five chemical companies in the U.S. combined. Releasing toxic chemicals from Cape Cod to San Diego, it would seem that the DOD should be the first body EPA regulators look after. Abroad, the number of shots fired, and lead released, is even more staggering. The Government Accountability Office estimates that 1.8 billion of small round ammunitions are now being fired each year. In the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, that accounts for about 250,000 shots per insurgent killed.  

To understand the effect of lead on the environment, you must think in simple terms. When a single bullet is fired, the lead from bullet, used in creating the projectile, falls to rest in the wilderness of a firing range or is strewn across a war torn battlefield. Unless someone removes these casings and fragments, they sit there and slowly decompose. Ignoring the incredible magnitude of munitions abroad as a result of U.S. military operations, in two years at a typical domestic firing range, all those shots (using the 15 customer, 50 round approximation) can ultimately contaminate an entire foot of topsoil over an area of five acres, reports the EWG study. In 20 years, the land can come to contain 9.6 times the amount of lead requiring what is known as a Superfund cleanup, a program designed to remove hazardous materials from areas where levels become a threat to public health. (Note: Lead is already the most prevalent contaminant at Superfund cleanup sites)

While topsoil contamination may not sound all that scary, consider that when bullets are shot, lead dust is emitted, and on impact, the bullets are designed to break apart (for greater killing capacity). As wind transfers the dust, and rain and erosion dissolve away the bullet fragments, lead spreads through the air and ground and can permeate into underground aquifers. The air and water (think of private wells) can become contaminated and people can ingest lead without ever being aware, until the inevitable health complications ensue (sounds similar to hydrofracking, doesn’t it?). 

To be fair, lead-free bullets have had their share of problems in the past. In 2009, Norwegian soldiers reported fevers, headaches and joint pain after firing the rounds with their new rifles. But, those problems have been fixed since (the problem was sourced to a combination of the new bullets and new weapons creating emissions of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide from the gun after firing).

The Iraq War now over, the environmental effects of America’s presence are already becoming clear. While diffusion of lead from munitions into the air, ground, and water, and the study of its resulting effects on Iraqis will take time, it cannot and will not be fully studied, understood, and thus, entirely remediated.

Thus, when Britain politely refused Nammo’s suggestion, it set a precedent for all other large, active military’s to follow and paved the way for continued environmental degradation from war. And while the U.S. military isn’t oblivious to its environmental degradations and has begun testing and implementing a lead-free bullet into its forces, they fail to address the real problem. The bullet, which will only be used for the M4 carbine, will eliminate 2,000 tons of lead from the manufacturing process, a sizeable reduction. Unfortunately, manufacturing processes aren’t the real problem here; the billions of bullets laying across battlefields, and in the firing ranges across the country, are. 

So while the government and EPA continue to warn of the effects of lead poisoning, 2nd amendment enthusiasts and the American military apparatus will continue to thwart any real progress. Until lead free bullets are completely and firmly adopted by larger, more active, and more visible militaries, this necessary evolution will take far too long to make news, and ultimately, change, at home.

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