Chemical Hazards In Law Enforcement
Fabrice Czarnecki. M.D.
From Clinics In Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Volume 3, Issue 3,
Clandestine drug laboratories
drug laboratory is a nationwide phenomenon that involves significant health
hazards to law enforcement officers. Most of these laboratories manufacture
methamphetamine, which is an easy drug to produce, even with limited knowledge
of chemistry. Methamphetamine is an illegal stimulant that can be made with
simple, over-the-counter ingredients. Other drugs manufactured in clandestine
laboratories include sodium gamma hydroxybutyrate, lysergic acid diethylamide,
methcathinone, methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), and phencyclidine [1,2].
Most clandestine laboratories in the United States are located in the Midwest
and Western states, but they have become more common in the rest of the country.
They can be found in a variety of locations, from a university or industrial
chemical lab, to a remote cabin, hotel room, van, or trailer. In 1993, 270
clandestine laboratories were seized in the United States, primarily in the West
and Southwest. In 2001, approximately 8000 methamphetamine laboratories were
seized and reported to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database at the El
Paso Intelligence Center [1,2].
Every police officer should be trained to recognize a clandestine drug
laboratory. Some signs include ammonia or other unusual odors, a large number of
glass containers (used to separate methamphetamine from byproducts), and
specific chemicals (eg, lye, ammonia, rubbing alcohol, ephedrine). In most
cases, an unprepared officer should leave the environment of the laboratory and
call for the appropriate response. If officers recognize a laboratory, they
should get out (if possible), avoid turning any switch on or off, avoid eating
or drinking anything, be aware of booby traps and hostile suspects, secure the
scene, and call a specialized drug laboratory team. Only trained officers should
make entry and should wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
A survey of 46 law enforcement chemists and 13 clandestine drug laboratory
investigation team members found that responding to an active laboratory was
associated with a 7- to 15-fold increased risk of illness, compared with the
risk associated with other assignments that did not involve active laboratories
. Most illness symptoms were headache and respiratory, mucous membrane, and
skin irritation. Inhalation was the main source of exposure. Modern procedures
that involve respiratory protection should decrease the risk for inhalation.
The reported long-term effects that are caused by exposure to clandestine drug
laboratories mostly describe effects on the respiratory system. There are
anecdotal reports of elevated liver transaminase levels. A study of 40
California drug laboratory investigators showed an average annual decline in
forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) of 64.0 mL/y, with a median decline
of 40.0 mL/y . The absence of respiratory protection was associated with a
more rapid annual decline in FEV1. No significant changes in liver transaminase
level, hemoglobin level, and white cell count were seen. A slight decrease of
the platelet count was observed.
The Nazi Cold Labs method is a common and simple way to manufacture
methamphetamine from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine . The hazardous chemicals
that are used in this process include solvents, ammonia, sodium metal, and
sulfuric acid. Ammonia is used in the anhydrous form, which is caustic,
explosive, and toxic. It can cause chemical burns of the skin and the eyes,
acute respiratory failure with bronchiectasis and obliterative bronchiolitis,
and chronic obstructive lung disease. The solvents, typically alcohols or
hydrocarbons, can be volatile, inflammable, and toxic. Sodium metal commonly is
stored in kerosene and ignites in contact with water. Sulfuric acid can cause
chemical burns. Hydrogen chloride is a byproduct of methamphetamine synthesis
and can cause persistent lung damage.
The red phosphorous method is another common way to manufacture methamphetamine
from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine . The chemicals that are used include
solvents, iodine, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and hypophosphorus acid.
Sodium hydroxide usually comes from common drain-opening formulations available
at supermarkets and hardware stores and is caustic. An important toxic hazard of
the red phosphorous method is the production of phosphine gas as a byproduct.
Phosphine can cause pulmonary edema, myocardial injury, and potentially lethal
toxicity. In 1996, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported three
fatalities caused by phosphine inhalation during an attempted synthesis of
methamphetamine . One case report described a forensic specialist who was
exposed to phosphine at approximately 2.7 ppm for 20 to 30 minutes during the
investigation of a methamphetamine laboratory . The forensic specialist was
not wearing any respiratory protection and developed dizziness, cough, headache,
and diarrhea within a few hours. Pulmonary symptoms persisted for several days.
Other dangerous chemicals found in clandestine laboratories include hydrochloric
acid, phenylacetic acid, benzene, cyanide, and carbon monoxide . Hydrochloric
acid and phenylacetic acid are skin and respiratory irritants. Benzene is a
carcinogen. It can cause drowsiness, dizziness, headache, and unconsciousness
after an acute exposure and cause anemia with chronic exposure. Cyanide is toxic
through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Cyanide can cause dizziness,
headache, nausea, vomiting, seizures, apnea, and death.
Besides toxicity from chemical exposures, fires and explosions create additional
hazards in clandestine laboratory operations . Many laboratories are found
during the investigation of a fire. Booby traps, poor electrical connections,
common inflammable solvents, and hydrogen cause fires and explosions. Criminals
place booby traps in their laboratories for protection against the police and
competing criminals. Officers should be looking for trip wires and deadfalls.
When entering a suspected clandestine drug laboratory, electrical switches
should not be turned on or off because they could be booby trapped or linked to
a cooling circuit that is controlling a chemical reaction .
Only properly trained and equipped officers should knowingly enter a clandestine
drug laboratory. The Clandestine Laboratory Training Unit of the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers training programs that meet Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for working with respiratory
protection. Current regulations mandate that law enforcement officers receive at
least 24 hours of hazardous chemical handling training before entering a
clandestine drug laboratory . Officers also should attend refresher training
The DEA conducts a 40-hour Basic Clandestine Laboratory Certification School and
an Advanced Site Safety Officer School. Students who graduate from the DEA
course receive more than $2000 in specialized safety equipment, including Nomex
fire-resistant ballistic vests (DuPont, Wilmington, DE); Nomex fire-resistant
jackets, pants, and gloves; chemical resistant boots; air-purifying respirators;
chemical testing equipment; explosion-proof flashlights; chemical-resistant
clothing; and goggles .
When entering a clandestine laboratory, officers should wear appropriate PPE
. Depending on the risk assessment, air sampling, and previous intelligence,
officers can choose level B or level C PPE, as defined by OSHA, as cutaneous and
respiratory protections are necessary (these levels of PPE are discussed in the
article by Leiken et al elsewhere in this issue). The atmosphere should be
monitored remotely, before entering the suspect location, for oxygen level,
toxicity, and lower explosive limit.
Officers should wear fire-resistant uniforms, usually made of Nomex, and eye
protection. Heat exhaustion may become an issue because of the ballistic vests
and heavy tactical equipment. To prevent heat injury, officers should be rotated
frequently and allowed to rest. Officers should train with PPE on a regular
basis, because PPE tends to impair vision and dexterity. Defensive tactics,
firearms training, building searches, and tactical entries should be practiced
while wearing PPE.
OSHA mandates a medical surveillance program for employees working with a
respirator and for employees dealing with hazardous waste operations . An
initial medical evaluation is necessary to determine whether the officer is
physically able to work with a respirator. Physical examinations are required
before beginning the clandestine laboratory assignment and then once a year. The
examinations can be more or less frequent, as decided by the examining
physician, but should be performed at least every 2 years and after each injury
or exposure. Officers with asthma, chronic lung disease, coronary artery
disease, and liver disease should undergo a thorough evaluation by a physician
who is knowledgeable in these conditions to determine if the officers safely can
participate in clandestine laboratory operations. The following tests are
recommended for use during the initial medical examination:
function tests with FEV1
stress test, depending on cardiac risk factors
physician can order these tests after the initial examination, according to the
officer's symptoms and known exposures.
With appropriate preparation, training, use of PPE, and medical oversight,
clandestine drug laboratory operations should be relatively safe. Although there
is a significant potential for injury and illness, the DEA has not seen any
long-term lung or liver disease (R. Waite, personal communication, 2002).
Chemical agents used in law enforcement
Oleoresin capsicum (OC) is a natural oily compound that is extracted from
cayenne pepper. It has been used in warfare for several centuries. Around 2000
BC in China, armies would burn red pepper to produce a suffocating smoke. The US
Postal Service has used OC as a dog repellent since 1961. The first
law-enforcement OC aerosol, commonly called pepper spray, was manufactured in
OC contains several active ingredients called capsaicinoids , which include
capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin,
homocapsaicin, and nonivamide. Capsaicin, the main capsaicinoid, is a
crystalline alkaloid (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide; C18H27NO3) and is
approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a topical treatment for pain
from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, zoster, and diabetic neuropathy.
Capsaicin also has been used in the treatment of chronic rhinitis [12,13].
Effects of OC aerosols
OC is an inflammatory agent that causes pain, erythema, and edema. Its effects
as an aerosol are immediate, and it is safer and more effective than other
riot-control agents [13,14].
Cutaneous and mucous membrane effects
OC aerosols cause a transient inflammation of the skin and mucous membranes,
usually associated with a burning sensation and erythema [13,14].
OC aerosols cause severe eye pain, conjunctivitis, blepharospasm, and
lacrimation. Once a subject is sprayed with OC, fighting abilities are decreased
mostly from difficulty with vision that is caused by eye inflammation [12–15].
The respiratory effects of OC include coughing and shortness of breath, without
other objective findings [13,14,16]. One study found no significant differences
in forced vital capacity, FEV1, oxygen, and CO2 levels between a group exposed
to OC and a placebo group . Another study found a transient (less than 60
seconds) decrease of airway conductance after capsaicin inhalation, with no
difference in magnitude or duration observed between normal subjects and those
with asthma .
Psychologic effects are critical to law enforcement applications. Most subjects,
when they do not have a strong goal to fight the effects of OC, tend to panic
after exposure. The fear of blindness and suffocation can be overwhelming.
Subjects might be unable to function or fight, and some might fall to the ground
in a fetal position .
OC does not stop a determined assailant. Most police officers, who are exposed
in training and especially if they have been well prepared for the effects of OC
and given a task to achieve after the exposure, tend to perform well despite the
discomfort caused by OC. It seems that having a strong goal is the critical
factor that allows people to fight through the effects of OC. Officers deploying
OC should be aware that criminals can resist OC. This agent does not replace
firearms, impact weapons, defensive tactics, and other defense and control
tools. It should not be used in a deadly force situation. Some people seem to be
naturally immune to the effects of OC: The usual estimation is that OC is
effective on 80% to 85% of the population .
OC also is used as a defense against bears and dogs. Trained dogs, when given a
specific task before being sprayed, have been shown to withstand OC. Like
humans, they can use a strong goal to overcome the effects of OC.
Most of the effects of OC last for less than 45 minutes, with an average
duration of about 30 minutes. A mild conjunctivitis can persist for several
hours. Rarely, a corneal abrasion has been observed after exposure to OC
aerosols, but this effect resolved within 24 hours without treatment .
Studies found an incidence of corneal abrasion of up to 10% [18,19]. A study of
47 subjects, only found punctate epithelial erosions, without abrasion . The
exact cause of the corneal abrasion after OC exposure is unknown. Solvents, the
pressure of the spray, or the rubbing of eyes after exposure, in addition to OC,
have been suggested as possible causes.
OC has an established track record of safety. It is used widely by police
agencies in the United States and other countries. No death has ever been proved
to be caused by OC exposure [14,21,22]. In 1994, the International Association
of Chiefs of Police published a report on in-custody death after OC exposure
. The report concluded that OC was not the cause of death in any of the
cases. Deaths after OC exposure are usually the consequence of excited delirium,
a condition that is characterized by extreme agitation, hyperthermia,
rhabdomyolysis, renal failure, and hyperkalemia. The chronic use of excitant
drugs, mostly cocaine, causes excited delirium.
OC spray selection
The pungency of chili peppers is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU) [12,13].
The original pungency testing was performed using a panel of five experienced
subjects who tasted the spices. The American Spice Trade Association, using
high-pressure liquid chromatography, designed a modern, more reliable method.
Most law enforcement sprays have a pungency of 500,000 to 2 million SHU. One
brand has sprays with 5.3 million SHU. Hotter sprays (with more SHU) tend to
have faster effects.
Another characteristic of OC aerosol is the concentration of capsicum ,
which varies from 2% to 17%. Most law enforcement sprays have a concentration of
5% to 10%. A higher concentration generally means longer-lasting effects, which
is not necessarily desirable. The concentration of capsaicin, the main active
ingredient, is not the same as the capsicum concentration, which is stated on
the label of the canister. The capsicum concentration is a poor indicator of the
efficiency of the aerosol. The concentration of capsaicin would be a better
indicator, but it is rarely available . The National Institute of Justice is
financing research that would help determine the exact composition of available
pepper sprays and standardize formulations.
Some OC aerosols use an alcohol-containing solution. These formulations should
not be sprayed near an open flame. Once a subject has been sprayed with an
alcohol-based aerosol, a taser or an electric stun gun should not be used,
because the risk for burns is significant.
OC aerosols offer different dispersion shapes, depending on the application. The
cone is effective on the eyes, respiratory system, and mucous membranes, and its
risk for secondary exposure is high. The stream is more target specific and is
more effective in high winds, and the risk for secondary exposure is low. The
foam is best for indoor use, especially in a crowded environment, because the
secondary exposure is minimal. The fogger deploys a cloud of OC under high
pressure, with the goal of affecting everybody in a large area.
Soap and baby shampoo can be used to remove OC oily compounds from the face and
hands, mainly to prevent secondary recontamination [13,14]. Milk, soda, baby
shampoo, sugar solutions, water, and commercial decontaminants have been used,
and no one method has been proven to be superior to another. Some OC trainers
believe that commercial decontaminants are not superior to water and fresh air.
Water, fresh air, and time seem to be the best agents that ease the pain. Once
the inflammation starts, no decontaminant can stop it. The goal of the
decontamination process is to remove the OC from the skin to prevent future
A person who has been sprayed should be brought to a hospital if the symptoms
persist for longer than 45 minutes or if the person requests it. Emergency
medical services (EMS) should be called if signs of distress are observed (eg,
loss of consciousness, difficulty breathing, chest pain) .
Exposure to OC during training
A controversial issue in police training is whether officers should be exposed
to OC. Although it is safe for healthy individuals, some police departments do
not expose their officers to OC. Other departments have officers perform
job-related tasks after exposure, like restraining or disarming a suspect or
shooting a firearm.
Officers are likely to be exposed to OC in the field and should know in advance
how they can function after exposure. Assaults on police officers with pepper
spray have occurred. Cross-contamination is common and occurs when officers
deploy OC in a closed environment. Exposure during training helps officers react
in a positive way if they experience significant OC exposure during an actual
fight. Criminals can use OC to incapacitate officers to obtain access to their
firearms. Training should address that issue. Previous OC exposure might be the
best way to achieve successful firearm retention during an actual attack, when
coupled with firearm-retention techniques and mental conditioning.
Panic has an important role in the human reaction to OC, and previous exposure
decreases panic levels. Training helps officers overcome that panic and fear,
which can result in an inability to protect themselves if sprayed with OC.
Previous exposure is probably the best way to show officers that they can
control their panic reaction.
Other reasons to expose officers include acceptability and liability. Spraying
officers shows the community that OC is not dangerous and may not necessarily
constitute excessive use of force or police brutality. The knowledge about the
effects of OC help officers articulate in court their use of force escalation,
possibly up to deadly force, when they are assaulted with OC. If they know from
personal experience what happens when exposed to OC, it would be easier to
justify the actions they took to defend themselves from a suspect who threatened
them with OC. Officers can explain that OC is not a magic bullet and that
suspects may require more force to arrest them if OC has failed.
Personal experience might increase the confidence in OC use. Such knowledge
improves officers' understanding of the effectiveness of OC as a defense and an
arrest tool and its strengths and weaknesses.
Officers and suspects benefit when officers participate in a live OC training
exercise, which is an excellent way to learn decontamination procedures.
Officers learn what steps to follow to help in the decontamination of suspects.
Because they experience the discomfort caused by OC, officers also learn to feel
empathy toward these suspects.
During a training session, the OC canister should be kept at a safe distance
from the person being sprayed, as recommended by the manufacturer (usually 3
feet), to avoid eye damage caused by the pressure of the aerosol [13,14].
Officers should wait a sufficient amount of time (ie, at least 4 hours to allow
the conjunctivitis to subside) after being sprayed before driving a car. The
officers carefully should wash their hands and face and change exposed clothes
to avoid secondary contamination while driving. Instructors should be ready to
help officers decontaminate themselves, as necessary. A medical plan includes
on-site medical supplies, quick access to 911 and EMS, and the presence of
trained cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid personnel.
There is anecdotal evidence that OC is not dangerous in asthmatics. According to
a leading OC trainer, several hundreds of asthmatic officers have been sprayed
in training, without any side effect (R. Ouellette, personal communication,
2001). OC is contraindicated during an acute asthma exacerbation. Pregnant
officers should be allowed to opt out of OC exposure during training. Other
contraindications might be articulated by the officer's personal physician,
which may raise several questions: Should that officer be issued pepper spray
considering the definitive risk for cross-contamination? How would that officer
react if other officers deploy OC near him or her?
The author's recommendation, as a physician and a pepper-spray instructor, is to
encourage OC exposure during training, because it is safe and useful for
officers. Whether it should be optional or mandatory has to be answered by the
legal department as an OSHA issue and a use-of-force issue. If officers are not
exposed directly to OC, they should at least watch a film showing the effects of
Other riot gases
Omega-chloroacetophenone (CN) was the original active ingredient used in
self-defense sprays [13,14]. It was developed in 1869 and has been used as a
riot-control gas since the late 1920s. CN usually is defined as an irritant
agent. This aerosolized solid is effective within a few seconds and has a LCt50
(concentration of chemical agent that will kill by inhalation 50% of an exposed
population) of 14,000 mg·min/m3. Exposure to CN can cause lacrimation, shortness
of breath, skin inflammation, and nausea. CN relies mostly on pain compliance
and might be less effective on intoxicated and agitated subjects. CN
cross-contamination is a major issue, because CN particles can remain airborne
for some time after deployment. CN can cause severe dermatitis, necrotizing
keratitis, suppurative iridocyclitis, and a potentially deadly pulmonary edema.
It is not used commonly in law enforcement in the United States.
o-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (CS) is a common riot-control gas that
has been used by the US military since 1960 [13,14]. It was developed in 1928
and initially was used as a riot-control gas in 1956 in Cyprus by the British
military. CS usually is defined as a tear gas. This aerosolized solid is
effective within 20 to 60 seconds and has an LCt50 of 25,000 mg·min/m3 and a
LD50 of 200 mg/kg. Exposure to CS can cause lacrimation, persistent coughing,
nasal discharge, shortness of breath, skin inflammation, and nausea. Law
enforcement applications of CS include crowd-control situations where the goal
is to displace a crowd, rather than “knock its members to the ground”, when OC
might be more appropriate. CS is the most popular chemical self-defense spray in
Europe for police and civilian markets, but more European police agencies are
switching to OC.
Chemical agents have been used by law enforcement for about 80 years. Compared
with other agents, OC has proved to have superior effectiveness, reliability,
and most importantly, safety for officers and suspects. Although the issues of
exposure during training and decontamination remain unsolved, OC has been
established as a standard nonlethal weapon in US law enforcement.
Police officers are exposed to lead mostly during firearms training. In
countries where gasoline is contains lead, traffic enforcement can be another
significant source of lead exposure for police officers . Fingerprint
powders are another source of exposure . The following section addresses the
issue of lead exposure on police ranges and how to mitigate it.
Inorganic lead is absorbed by inhalation and ingestion . The blood
absorption of inhaled lead is approximately 30% to 40%, depending on particle
size and interindividual variation. The absorption of lead through ingestion is
approximately 5% to 15%. The latter figure increases to up to 50% in pregnant
women and children. Most circulating lead (≥95%) is bound to erythrocytes. Lead
then is deposited to bones and soft tissues. Bones contain about 90% of the
total content of lead in the body. The half-life of lead is 1 to 3 months in
blood and soft tissues and 10 to 25 years in bones. Lead is excreted mainly
through the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. Breast milk is another excretion
route, and the lead concentration in breast milk is associated with the
concentration in blood.
A mild-to-moderate anemia is a common toxic effect of lead in adults [25,26].
The anemia is usually normocytic and normochromic with a chronic exposure, but
could be microcytic and hypochromic in the early course of the disease. The
mechanism of anemia is double: Lead inhibits the synthesis of hemoglobin, and it
decreases the life span of circulating erythrocytes.
Lead encephalopathy resulting from occupational exposure is rare [25,26]. The
symptoms in the early stages of the disease include fatigue, subtle behavioral
changes, memory impairment, depression, headache, and tremor. Severe cases
progress to drowsiness, convulsions, and coma. Chronic lead exposure in
childhood causes cognitive deficits, low IQ scores, and hearing loss. Peripheral
nervous system damage is more common in adults. The symptoms of lead neuropathy
include muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and tremor. Paralysis, typically of the
extensor muscles of the hand, is a late finding.
Lead nephropathy results from a combination of proximal tubule damage,
interstitial fibrosis, and vascular changes [25,26]. Chronic lead exposure has
been associated with gout. So-called “saturnine gout” is related to the tubular
damage and the consequent underexcretion of uric acid. Lead nephropathy is rare
and results from heavy exposure lasting at least 10 years.
Gastrointestinal symptoms of lead toxicity include loss of appetite, abdominal
pain, and constipation or diarrhea [25,26]. Hypertension can occur, and
cerebrovascular deaths seem to be more frequent with heavy exposure to lead.
Decreased fertility has been observed in female and male workers. Lead exposure
during pregnancy can cause spontaneous abortion, premature delivery,
preeclampsia, and decreased birth weight [26,27].
The treatment of lead poisoning starts with removing the source of exposure.
Chelation usually is indicated in adults with blood lead levels greater 80 μg/dL
and in children with levels greater than 40 μg/dL . Chelating agents include
ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA) and 2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid. OSHA
prohibits the use of chelating agents to prevent elevated blood lead levels.
The OSHA action level for inorganic lead concentration in the air is 30 μg/m3,
when workers are not wearing respirators . The OSHA permissible exposure
limit (PEL) is 50 μg/m3 averaged over an 8-hour workday. When the action level
is reached, the following steps have to be taken: air monitoring every 6 months,
employee training, medical surveillance, and biologic monitoring of exposed
personnel exposed for more than 30 d/y. When the PEL is reached, the air has to
be monitored every 3 months.
Workers who are exposed to the OSHA action level (30 μg/m3) for more than 30 d/y
should be tested for blood lead and zinc protoporphyrin (ZPP) levels every 6
months. If the blood lead level is less than 40 μg/dL, there are no further
requirements. If the blood lead level is greater than 40 μg/dL of whole blood,
the worker should get a complete physical, with hemoglobin and hematocrit
determinations, peripheral blood smear, blood urea nitrogen, and serum
creatinine, urinalysis, and be tested for lead every 2 months until 2
consecutive levels are less than 40 μg/dL. The worker should be completely
removed from any lead exposure if the average blood lead level is greater than
50 μg/dL and be tested every month until 2 consecutive levels are less than 40
ZPP is believed to be an indicator of exposure to lead over the past 4 months.
Elevated ZPP results are seen in iron deficiency, the anemia of chronic disease,
and in chronic lead poisoning, typically when the blood lead is greater than 25
μg/dL. The OSHA standard does not specify action levels for ZPP.
In addition to specific requirements in the OSHA lead standard, the following
steps should be considered when an employee has a blood lead level greater than
testing of each employee for blood lead and ZPP levels
inspection of the range by an industrial hygienist
the air ventilation system
cleaning of range
in police ranges
Shooting ranges can expose police officers to airborne lead particles during
firearms training. Police officers have to qualify with their issued firearms on
a regular basis, usually two to four times a year, to demonstrate proficiency.
Beyond regular qualification, some agencies require or encourage additional
firearms training. Some officers shoot on their own time or for practice,
hunting, or competition.
The routes of lead contamination include inhalation, ingestion, and
cross-contamination. The officer can inhale lead dust coming from the primer
(the small explosive located at the base of the shell casing) or inhale lead
particles caused by friction of a lead bullet passing through the barrel. The
lead dust also settles on the skin, clothing, face, and hands of the shooter.
Ingestion occurs through the deposition of lead dust on the officer's hands and
face, especially facial hair. Lead can contaminate clothing, especially shoes,
and food and beverages left in or near the shooting area. The clothes worn at
the range could contaminate the family of the officer if they are brought home
Only vacuum cleaning should be used, preferably with a vacuum cleaner equipped
with a high-efficiency particulate air filter . Sweeping and brushing might
cause the lead particles to become airborne and should be avoided.
Prevention of lead poisoning in police ranges
Several steps can be taken to reduce the exposure to lead in police ranges. The
precautions should be more stringent with full-time range workers and possibly
less stringent with occasional visitors, such as police recruits, officers who
come for in-service training, and part-time firearms instructors. OSHA mandates
monitoring for employees who spend at least 30 d/y in a lead-contaminated
Full-time range workers include firearms instructors and support personnel. The
exposure risk for the cleaning staff is high, but the risk for gunsmiths and
clerical personnel can be variable. The authors recommend baseline blood lead
testing and a complete blood count before employees at risk for exposure begin
working at the range. Workers who work in the lead-contaminated area should be
tested for blood lead levels at least every 6 months.
Engineering modifications and a better design of the range decrease the level of
exposure. An industrial hygienist can provide regular professional inspections
of the range. The change rooms and washing rooms should be separate from the
firing range. Engineering modifications include improved ventilation and exhaust
systems. The airflow should go downrange, away from shooters. The goal is to
insure that the breathing zones of the workers (18-inch radius) have a lead
concentration of less than 30 μg/m3.
Police officers should receive training to reduce the exposure to lead.
Full-time range workers may need additional training. The reproductive dangers
of lead should be explained to male and female officers. Once a pregnancy is
known, pregnant officers should not be required to participate in firearms
training because of the increased risks for spontaneous abortion, premature
delivery, preeclampsia, and decreased birth weight . The fetus could be
exposed during the earliest part of the pregnancy, before the pregnancy is
known. Pregnant and lactating officers should be offered alternatives to
live-fire training .
Male and female officers who plan to have children in the near future should be
careful to reduce their lead exposure and should keep their blood lead levels
under 30 μg/dL .
No one should be allowed to eat, drink, or smoke on the range . No food,
beverages, or tobacco products should be allowed on or near the range. Officers
should wash their hands and face carefully after shooting and after manipulation
or cleaning firearms, especially before eating, drinking, or smoking. Officers
should avoid touching their mouths or applying lipstick or lip balm while on the
To avoid contaminating their families, officers should change and shower as soon
they arrive home. Officers should wear different shoes at the range and at home.
Clothing worn at the range should be washed at the range or separated from the
family wash. These precautions are important if officers live with small
children or pregnant women. Cleaning firearms may expose officers and their
families to lead. Such cleaning should be performed at the range, while taking
the precautions required when shooting.
Full-time range workers may want to take extra steps to protect themselves and
their families. Air-purifying respirators, protective clothing, and gloves can
be used when cleaning the range. Range workers also can change clothes,
including shoes, and take a shower before leaving the range.
The ammunition design, such as totally metal-jacketed bullets and lead-free
primers, can be useful to decrease lead exposure. One study showed that the use
of totally copper-jacketed bullets reduced airborne lead levels by a factor of
21 in the personal breathing zone of the shooters .
Using lead-free ammunition, with lead-free primers, is the best way to avoid
lead exposure. Lead-free ammunition is more expensive and not used widely, but
more training facilities are adopting them. Some firearms instructors train
officers with service ammunition (ie, the ammunition issued for street use)
rather than with training ammunition. No lead-free service ammunition is
available, but most, if not all, of firearms training can be accomplished with
lead-free training ammunition. Progressive law enforcement agencies should
consider using only lead-free ammunition during training, especially in indoor
ranges. Outdoor ranges might be safer than indoor ranges, but still require some
precautions. Significant lead exposure has been found in uncovered outdoor
Lead probably remains the main toxic chemical in the law enforcement profession.
Lead exposure is a complex issue, but proper planning can keep it under control,
using a combination of engineering improvements, hygiene, and education of the
officers. In the future, lead-free ammunition should become the standard in
. Drug Enforcement Administration . Drug trafficking in the United States.
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a The Gables Group, Inc., 1172 South Dixie Highway, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA
b Family Health Center, Franklin Square Hospital Center, 9101 Franklin Square
Drive, Suite 205, Baltimore, MD 21237, USA
* Family Health Center, Franklin Square Hospital Center, 9101 Franklin Square
Drive, Suite 205, Baltimore, MD 21237
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