Lead poisoning is a major threat at America’s shooting ranges, perpetuated by owners who’ve repeatedly violated laws even after workers have fallen painfully ill.
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 South King County doubled over in pain and vomited.
The cause of their suffering: lead poisoning. The source: dirty gun ranges.
Indoor and outdoor, public and private, gun ranges dot the national landscape like bullet holes riddling a paper 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. When shooters fire guns with lead-based ammunition, they spread lead vapor and dust, insidious toxins.
Thousands of people, including 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 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.
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 with no regard for workers who became sick. Other owners and operators were ignorant of the dangers posed by lead.
By law, owners 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. Yet state and federal regulators are doing little to make certain gun ranges put such protections in place.
The nation has an estimated 6,000 commercial indoor and outdoor gun ranges, but only 201 have been inspected in the past decade, 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, the analysis found.
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.
Of the 10 commercial ranges inspected in Washington, nine had at least one lead violation.
OSHA typically doesn’t examine a gun range unless it receives a blood-test report that shows an employee already has been overexposed to lead or unless someone complains. 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.
In 14 states, federal and state occupational agencies didn’t inspect a single commercial gun range from 2004 to 2013, an analysis of OSHA records found.
When caught, gun-range owners face few consequences for failing to protect their workers. Fines are reduced. And owners are allowed to keep ranges open while appealing their cases, which can take several years and put employees and customers at continued risk.
Washington state and federal workplace regulators have the power to temporarily close a lead-polluted shooting range to protect workers from exposure to high amounts of lead, but have never done so.
Several thousand other indoor and outdoor gun ranges in America — most of them casually operated by volunteer-led clubs and sports organizations with little knowledge of lead safety — don’t even have to follow OSHA regulations. They aren’t subject to any scrutiny because they have no employees.
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 research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which analyzes occupational hazards for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows lead is a hidden danger.
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.”
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.”
A heavy diagnosis
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. Nightly, he swept up casings from spent ammunition in the 12 firing lanes, pushing a broom and kicking up more lead dust. The toxin landed on his skin and sank into his pores. Every breath pushed the poison further into his lungs, blood and bones.
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.
“It was just circulating the lead air,” said Maddox, who earned $9 an hour.
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 head throbbed, 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 of 1.2. “Your organs could start shutting down,” he recalled his doctor telling him.
The CDC states lead causes health problems like organ damage at 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 many employees who’d already suffered significant health problems before reaching that threshold.
Despite the CDC’s concern, OSHA has yet to adopt more stringent lead regulations to protect workers.
“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. Changing the standard, he added, is highly complex and can take more than seven years.
Maddox, who spent several weeks in bed, returned to work after he assumed Underwood had fixed the lead problems. But when Maddox found not much had changed, he started to alert pregnant women and kids they shouldn’t enter the range because of lead exposure.
Maddox’s wife, who worked throughout the business, 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 his April 2007 resignation letter.
He has advice for range workers: “Educate yourself and know the risks — it’s not just bullets you need to watch out for.”
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 that he had overexposed his employees to lead on a daily basis. The agency hit him with dozens of violations and $461,400 in fines, the highest total amount imposed against a U.S. gun range in the past decade.
But in a later settlement with Underwood, the Kentucky Labor Cabinet lowered the fine to $7,200 because of “financial hardship.”
As with other industries, OSHA and state occupational agencies often reduce fines for gun-range owners, sometimes because they are cooperative or they show an inability to pay. Nationally, the agencies initially fined gun ranges a total of almost $2 million for violations in the past decade, but reduced it to less than half that amount. For ranges that were fined, OSHA reduced the amounts in two out of every three inspections, a Times analysis found.
In the Bluegrass case, Underwood paid the fine in 2012. But he didn’t fix all the lead violations, which dated to 2007. Under federal and state law, he didn’t have to because he filed an appeal.
Even though blood tests and sampling of air and surfaces show dire hazards and widespread lead contamination, shooting ranges can avoid costly cleanups and paying fines until the administrative appeal is resolved.
During 2010 congressional testimony, Michaels said the appeal process is flawed, pointing to 33 cases in which workers in various industries died while employers contested violations and fines.
“The only situation worse than a worker being injured or killed on the job by a senseless and preventable hazard is having a second worker felled by the same hazard,” Michaels said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other lawmakers proposed bills in 2013 to require abatement of serious hazards during an appeal, but the bills are languishing in committees.
Evan Satterwhite, director of Kentucky’s occupational safety and health compliance at the time, said “it’s not something we like,” but he could do little while Underwood’s appeal dragged on.
“We’re all for the Second Amendment, but he was deceiving employees while exposing them to an unhealthy chemical,” Satterwhite said.
Trouble from the start in Kent
From the moment the doors opened at the new Champion Arms indoor shooting range in Kent, in October 2005, 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. Filtered vents at the back of the range were then expected to suck the bad air out of the building.
But the exhaust system didn’t work. Instead, it blew toxic dust clouds back on unwitting shooters — and into the retail areas of the business, where workers spent most of their day.
“This system was so screwed up, it’s remarkable they could have gotten the doors actually locked at night,” Cheryl Christian, a state Labor and Industries expert on lead issues, would later remark. "…It would have been a wind tunnel out the front door in the wrong direction.”
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 in July 2006 to investigate.
Air sampling showed Champion Arms workers were being exposed to airborne lead above safe standards. Using testing wipes that measure lead on surfaces, 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.
L&I learned the range’s owners had no training about safe range operations. One of the owners even used a leaf blower to clean up, and the range employed a pregnant worker. Women can have miscarriages when overexposed to lead.
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 would put workers and the public at risk if it stayed open, officials with L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) debated whether to shut it down. They could issue an “order and notice of immediate restraint” that forces a business to close until it fixes its problems.
DOSH has issued more than 150 such orders since September 2004, though never for a gun range.
“This is the worse (sic) indoor firing range DOSH has investigated certainly recently and potentially ever,” Christian wrote later in an email to a state lawyer.
But L&I management decided not to close it and couldn’t explain why.
“As a public range with the potential for underage kids using it in addition to adults, in retrospect I wonder at that decision,” Christian’s email said.
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 to the public.
Finally, in October 2007, Champion Arms agreed to the state’s violations and penalties. The range was placed on a six-month payment plan for the fines and promised to fix any outstanding violations in 15 days.
L&I allows businesses to essentially police themselves by submitting an “Employer Certification of Hazards Corrected” form.
Several months after the settlement, Geiss declared in writing that all violations had been fixed. By then, the range already had missed payments.
But L&I didn’t immediately check on whether the range had corrected its problems. 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.
Inspectors were afraid to return to Champion Arms. “I have a concern about entering this location,” a supervisor said by email. “There is no evidence that the ventilation system has been fixed.”
Later that month, inspectors again found rampant violations, including problems uncorrected since the 2006 inspection. Lead dust still contaminated the range’s air; table and counter tops still remained coated in lead; and employees still lacked the required protective gear.
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.
L&I cited Champion Arms for 15 violations in November 2008, including six “Failure to Abate Serious” citations, and fined it $42,400.
Once again, Champion filed an appeal in December 2008, halting the state’s orders to fix the problems and pay the fines.
During the year it took to resolve the appeal, the business kept operating. On Dec. 31, 2009, an industrial appeals judge affirmed all 15 violations and the original $42,400 fine against the shooting range.
Again, a gun-range manager guaranteed in November 2010 that Champion Arms had finally corrected all outstanding violations. But a few weeks later, after that same manager had been fired, he complained to L&I that Champion still was exposing its employees to lead at unsafe levels. L&I later issued $10,600 in fines and 10 more violations.
After its fourth inspection of Champion Arms in October 2013, L&I cited it for four more violations, including failing to fully institute a lead-training program for employees — one of the most basic precautions on the books.
Through a manager, Geiss declined to comment. Wangsness died earlier this year.
In 2012, Washington became only the second state to require employers to correct serious workplace hazards during an appeal. L&I pointed to Champion Arms as an example when it asked lawmakers for the change.
Lack of scrutiny
Six years ago, federal OSHA set a new bar for workplace regulators to inspect a business if an employee had elevated blood-lead levels of 25 micrograms or higher. The national emphasis program specifically included shooting ranges.
Several states, including North Carolina, Kentucky and Alaska, adopted the program. But Alaska workplace-safety officials didn’t implement it.
At least four range workers in that state tested above 25 micrograms. But public-health officials didn’t share those test results with regulators because they weren’t aware of the program.
“But now that you mention it,” public-health manager Ali Hamade told The Times, “it’s not a bad idea.”
Some states, like Washington, didn’t know about OSHA’s lead-emphasis program.
In an interview last month, Anne Soiza, L&I’s top official for the agency’s compliance division, expressed ignorance when asked about OSHA’s ongoing program.
“I don’t know what the directive says,” said Soiza, adding she “wasn’t here” when OSHA sent it out.
L&I has collected thousands of blood test results for lead through its Washington State Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance program.
It received notice of 59 employees at nine gun ranges who had lead levels of 25 micrograms or higher in their blood from 2004 through May 2013, according to a Times analysis of a previously unreleased L&I blood-test database. The tally is likely an undercount because workers weren’t required to identify their employer.
Of those nine ranges, L&I inspected four over that time.
L&I has no requirement to alert inspectors of high blood-lead tests, regardless of the level.
The officials said referrals to inspect were made case by case, based on various guidelines.
But blood-lead monitoring officials failed at least once to follow agency guidelines about when to refer “critical situations” to inspectors. In a 2008 case, two employees at a Bellevue gun range had lead levels so high they were removed from work, as required.
Todd Schoonover, L&I’s manager of the blood-monitoring system, declined to comment on his group’s referral decisions.
The state’s lack of scrutiny helped set the stage for what public-health officials now say is the country’s largest reported occupational lead exposure at an indoor gun range.
During the 2008 lead-exposure case, six employees at Wade’s Eastside Guns and Bellevue Indoor Range showed lead poisoning in tests sent to the blood-monitoring program, but results weren’t passed on to L&I inspectors. The agency didn’t inspect Wade’s until 2010, after another cluster of workers tested high for lead.
In 2012, 46 construction and range workers were overexposed to lead during a project to add a second floor to the gun range. As a result of this case, L&I for the first time has started to compile a list of gun ranges in the state and to inspect more of them.
Officials also said the agency will review workers’ blood-lead levels at 25 micrograms, to determine if L&I will investigate.
Federal OSHA officials can’t say how many gun ranges have been inspected nationwide, because they can’t track them. Ranges have registered themselves under such business categories as “all other amusement and recreational industries,” which include bowling alleys and soccer clubs, and “sporting goods stores.” One range claimed to be a shoe store, another a locksmith.
OSHA handles workplace oversight for most states, but 21 states enforce their own occupational safety and health programs that typically mirror federal regulations. Yet whether under OSHA’s or state jurisdiction, regulation of gun ranges is lax.
Alaska, Iowa and Louisiana are among 14 states that have not inspected a commercial gun range in the past 10 years.
Even when OSHA, the nation’s largest workplace-safety enforcer, 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 cited the range with 27 serious violations and hit it with $111,000 in fines. OSHA then hyped its enforcement in a widely distributed news release.
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 in 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 said. “But if Illinois Gun Works don’t exist, what are they going to do, go after McDonald’s? I wish them luck.” He died from a heart attack in April.
Another problem is many government agencies collect data from blood tests for lead, but don’t share it with occupational regulators.
Until recently, Iowa Department of Public Health wasn’t allowed to notify state occupational inspectors of gun ranges suspected of overexposing workers. That meant no inspection and no corrective action.
“It bothered me,” said Kathy Leinenkugel, the coordinator for the Occupational Health and Safety Surveillance Program in Iowa. She also faced political pressure over gun ranges.
“If we say to private clubs and retail [gun ranges] you need to make sure you follow OSHA, the pushback is the government is trying to take our guns away,” she said. “I’m not anti-gun. I want them to do it safely.”
California’s lead problems
California is viewed as a leader in fighting lead exposure. Even so, reported contaminations at its gun ranges have increased, though severe poisonings have dropped.
In 1986, California lawmakers passed a bill that created one of the nation’s first statewide blood-lead registries to track exposures at gun ranges and other workplaces.
Five years later, they established a lead-poisoning prevention program within the state’s Department of Public Health. The program educates problem shooting-range owners and managers about lead safety. But case workers have no enforcement authority and typically don’t conduct on-site investigations, working instead by phone and email.
They rarely refer range owners to California-OSHA for enforcement. When they do, it’s for particularly egregious cases. Cal-OSHA inspected 19 commercial indoor shooting ranges from 2004 to 2013, and fined them nearly $70,000.
But enforcement doesn’t always mean compliance. Repeat violators remain a problem, records show. And most California ranges have never been inspected.
“Overexposure to lead continues to be a serious occupational-health problem in California” gun ranges, Dr. Barbara Materna, occupational-health chief of the California Department of Public Health, said in an email.
When The Times asked the health department for public records of gun ranges with lead problems, it refused to provide company names, or even the city where they did business, citing privacy concerns.
Thousands of other gun ranges — those run by volunteers or that are members-only clubs — simply aren’t monitored for lead problems. With no employees, these ranges are not subject to OSHA inspections and operators often are unaware of the dangers of lead contamination.
Bob Godlove and his wife traveled the Midwest, shooting in gun competitions. It was a bond that made their marriage stronger. But their passion for shooting turned toxic.
As president of the Linn County Izaak Walton League in Iowa for more than 15 years, Godlove volunteered 20 hours a week, cleaning the gun range and managing the facility. The conservation organization, with chapters across the United States, has as its motto “defenders of soil, air, woods, waters and wildlife.”
For years, Godlove knew he had chronic lead exposure, with blood-lead levels around 40 micrograms per deciliter. His wife never got above 20. But he thought nothing of test results because they were below 60, the OSHA standard that requires removal from work. The CDC says any lead level over 10 is a health risk.
In 2008, Godlove said, he felt tingling in his hands and feet, often lost his balance, and developed a temper. His lead level had shot up to 67 and lead attacked other parts of his body.
When he told fellow league members he’d suffered lead poisoning, the culture he’d been a part of for decades smacked him right across the face.
Fellow competitive shooters were adamant lead wasn’t a problem. Many volunteers at the league didn’t feel any urgency despite at least one other person having elevated lead. They didn’t feel sick and no one had died, they told Godlove.
“I was unwilling to put it under the rug, and lots of people wanted me to,” Godlove said.
Others feared the range would close if people knew it was possibly contaminated.
“It’s a pervasive problem across the country — the lack of awareness and a belief that people and governments are trying to infringe on a gun owner’s rights and ability to shoot,” he said.
He upgraded the range ventilation system and posted lead-warning signs. He talks about personal hygiene with new members and in the basic firearms classes he teaches.
For more than two years, Godlove had to take chelation pills costing as much as $3,800 a month to rid his body of lead. But it was too late. It already had attacked his nervous system.
“It’s insidious,” he said.
With up to half of the feeling lost in his hands, Godlove has trouble picking up coins and paperwork.
He also can’t pull a trigger and fire accurately anymore. So he quit competitive shooting.
Christine Willmsen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3261. On Twitter @christinesea.
Lewis Kamb: email@example.com or 206-464-2932. On Twitter @LewisKamb.