The youngsters knew their sport could be dangerous, even deadly.
But for the junior team at the Vancouver (Wash.) Rifle and Pistol Club, the peril that emerged from their sport didn’t come from a stray bullet.
It came from lead.
In 2010, blood tests revealed that 20 youths had been overexposed to the poisonous metal after shooting in the club’s dirty, poorly ventilated range.
“It was devastating,” said Marc Ueltschi, the junior team coach and a club member. “It scared the life out of me. No one knew anything about lead poisoning and what to fix.”
Vancouver Rifle is just one of several private gun clubs across the United States that have posed health hazards in a sport with growing numbers of youths and women.
While those most likely to be poisoned by lead in gun ranges are the workers themselves, The Seattle Times has found dozens of avid shooters overexposed in such states as Washington, Massachusetts and Alaska.
The most vulnerable are children learning to shoot and compete in clubs operated by volunteers who may have little knowledge of the risks of firing lead ammunition. Gunfire can put lead residue in the air, and on the skin and nearby surfaces.
Clubs like Vancouver Rifle are membership-based organizations. With no paid employees, they aren’t governed by workplace-safety laws and aren’t subject to inspections that would identify deficiencies.
In this unregulated world of shooting, it’s nearly impossible to determine how many of the thousands of volunteer-based ranges are contaminated.
While lead poisoning among casual shooters is rare, the risk increases the more they shoot, particularly if it’s in poorly ventilated and maintained ranges.
“We weren’t very cautious”
Cordelia Schadler started shooting in seventh grade at the Vancouver club. She and her two younger brothers practiced there with other kids aged 10 to 19 and participated in local, state and national marksmen competitions.
When blood-test reports revealed that the three Schadlers had elevated levels of lead in 2010, it surprised club members.
Their levels ranged from 12 to 17 micrograms per deciliter — much higher than the threshold of 5 that health officials now say can cause health problems for kids.
No level of lead is safe for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even low levels of lead can decrease IQ, slow development and cause kidney damage.
“We weren’t very cautious,” Schadler, 18, recalled. “We would get lead on our hands and eat finger food.”
In March 2010, after receiving the test results, Clark County Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick launched an investigation.
Parents, volunteers and children soon discovered their club was contaminated with lead.
The club, formed in 1958, holds competitions like Bullseye Pistol and Cowboy Action and teaches firearms courses. The 250-member club has a junior team and also allows the JROTC, the Young Marines and Boy Scouts of America to shoot there.
An examination of the range revealed lead nestled in the carpet, chairs and a couch. Surface tests showed dangerous amounts of lead stuck to counters, a soda machine and the refrigerator, Clark County public records show.
The floor was 993 times higher than a federal housing guideline for allowable lead on surfaces.
Ventilation failed to move the airborne lead particles downrange away from shooters; volunteers rarely cleaned the 12 shooting lanes, according to records and interviews.
Even worse, children inhaled lead, ate lead and absorbed lead through skin contact with dirty surfaces.
Melnick urged that the junior team and the club members be tested for lead. The results: 20 of 32 children had elevated blood-lead levels. One 14-year-old shooter had 20 micrograms.
While none of the shooters showed signs of being affected by the lead, Melnick said damage might not be noticed for many years.
“I think this is a silent killer,” Melnick said. “There’s skepticism because there are no symptoms at this level; the cognitive changes can be fairly subtle.”
Even coach Ueltschi’s son, Kyle, had an elevated level of lead.
“He’d get off practice, he’d go home and eat,” Marc Ueltschi said. “He was ingesting it.”
In April 2010, Melnick recommended kids not shoot at the range until it was fixed. Leaders of the club agreed, but if children had parental approval, they could shoot there.
Melnick surveyed shooters, discovering those spending more time in the club had higher lead in their system. He also found that several of them may have had additional sources of contamination because they used their home or garage as a shooting range and made their own ammunition.
Indoor ranges with inadequate ventilation pose the highest hazard to shooters. But even outdoor ranges can overexpose competitive shooters, depending on the wind direction, frequency of shooting and cleanliness of the area.
Alaska teams exposed
Eight years earlier, a similar spate of lead exposures rocked the remote Tok School in interior Alaska, revealing a widespread problem for school rifle teams using poorly maintained ranges.
After the Tok team’s coach tested high for lead in 2002, public-health investigators soon learned student shooters practiced three to four times a week at a range inside their K-12 school’s multipurpose building. It also housed a hockey rink, was ventilated only by a utility fan and had carpeting loaded with lead dust.
Officials then tested the team’s seven members, aged 15 to 17, and found all had high lead levels, ranging from 21 to 31 micrograms per deciliter. The average is 1.2 micrograms for adults.
The Tok overexposures prompted a review of several other ranges used by school rifle teams in Alaska. Investigators soon found lead exposure in members of four other teams, including 10 students on Fairbanks’ Lathrop High School shooting squad.
Lathrop’s students often helped dry sweep the volunteer-run Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association shooting range, kicking up dust in the poorly ventilated facility.
Several other teams practiced at filthy ranges, including a school-operated range in a room also used for meetings, lunches, physical education and wrestling practice.
In all, investigators found significant lead exposure in 21 student shooters, several coaches and others.
When investigators looked at two other shooting teams that used a properly cleaned and ventilated commercial range, not a single member tested high for lead.
The lack of regulation at volunteer-run ranges contributed to the overexposures, investigators concluded. They recommended local health officials identify unregulated ranges in their areas and encourage owners to get them assessed and to address potential lead problems.
The investigation spurred case studies still used by public-health officials nationwide. But the problems identified are still repeated — even in Alaska.
In 2007, health investigators trying to figure out why a 1-year-old had elevated blood-lead levels learned the baby’s brother was on the rifle team at Delta High, near Fairbanks. After tests revealed lead poisoning in the brother, officials theorized he unknowingly contaminated the baby by tracking lead home from shooting practice.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we should check the whole team,’” said Lori Verbrugge, then a state public-health program manager who helped conduct the investigation.
Investigators soon found four other team members with high lead levels. Officials recommended the community range hire a consultant to assess its operations, and proposed to the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) to “make blood testing a standard practice for all kids that participate in this sport,” Verbrugge said.
PJ Ford Slack, then-superintendent of the Delta Greely School District, noted that the ASAA, which oversees Alaska’s interscholastic sports programs, had adopted strict rules for some sports over the years. But when it came to regulating rifle teams, the association balked, she said.
“They have a concussion policy, so why not one for lead poisoning?” Ford Slack asked. “But Alaska is a hunting state. Guns are part of the culture here and this became a political thing.”
Gary Matthews, then the ASAA’s executive director, said his group’s board of directors adopted voluntary “health considerations” for school shooting sports to avoid lead exposure. But representatives of schools with rifle teams largely opposed mandatory blood tests as too expensive and invasive, he said.
Ford Slack, whose husband later coached the Delta team, noted the squad improved its shooting hygiene and the community range also changed protocols.
In recent years, several shooting teams in Alaska have switched from small-bore firearms to air rifles, which can reduce lead exposure risks.
Still, firing ranges remain Alaska’s No. 1 source for lead exposure in children aged 6 to 17, the latest state study shows.
Teens test high for lead
Just a few months ago outside Boston, three teenagers on a competitive shooting team tested high for lead.
The team practiced at the Hopedale Pistol and Rifle Club, an institution for more than half a century in the town of 5,900.
Their elevated blood-lead levels triggered a visit from the local health department. Some parents with kids on the team were disturbed to learn that shooters had been overexposed. Other club members were irate that the matter wasn’t handled in-house first, said Hopedale health agent Lenny Izzo.
The members-only club agreed to have the state’s Department of Labor and Standards examine its brick building, which housed a clubhouse, eight shooting lanes and a “reloading” room with melting pots and molds for making bullets.
An inspector detected poor ventilation and extremely high amounts of lead on surfaces in the lanes and clubhouse.
The club recently closed, hired an abatement company to clean the property and remains shuttered.
Had it not voluntarily closed, Izzo said, Hopedale’s health board would have forced it to close.
In another case, a dirty Wisconsin gun range, open to the public, operated for years in the basement of a middle school.
At the Sheboygan Rifle and Pistol Club, an hour north of Milwaukee, rifle-club members and city residents took safety classes and shot in the basement range after children were dismissed for the day from Urban Middle School.
In 2007, parents who were worried that students and staff could be at risk pressured the Sheboygan School District to test the range.
“It’s an important tradition here in Wisconsin — shooting,” said Lisa Janairo, one of the parents. “We believed they were taking no measures to protect shooters and the students, staff and teachers.”
Tests by an environmental company showed shooters tracked lead into the school’s hallway but it posed little risk to students and staff.
But inside the range, a certified industrial hygienist said in a report, ventilation failed to protect shooters and lead on a trophy table was 105 times the standard used by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The rifle club cleaned the range and changed practices but couldn’t afford the $50,000 upgrade to the range’s ventilation system and decided to close.
In North Carolina, school officials evacuated and closed the Hemlock Building at the Asheville-Bumcombe Technical Community College in 2011 after tests found high lead levels linked to an indoor firing range used by law-enforcement students.
Lead from the ground-floor gun range had spread to all three floors through a ventilation system and by people tracking it.
The college has since dismantled the range and cleaned up the building.
Earlier this year in Helena, Mont., officials shut down one of the state’s largest middle schools for about a week after finding lead contamination in the building from a sealed-off, basement gun range that had operated decades earlier.
No one at C.R. Anderson Middle School tested high for blood-lead levels. In all, the district had to spend about $130,000 addressing the issue.
Clean bill of health
Children lug heavy rifle bags, bigger than they are, past the display case of trophies and the deer mounted on the wall at the Vancouver club.
At the start of practice, young shooters assemble their small-bore rifles, some costing as much as $2,000. They put on shooting garb — heavy pants, strapped-jackets and flat-soled shoes.
On the range floor, Thomas Kuzis, 14, of Vancouver, lies on a mat in prone position, looks through his rifle sight and steadies his body. He slowly exhales and fires at the target 50 feet away.
“Line cold — targets!” Ueltschi shouts, the command to stop firing, secure their weapons, then retrieve their targets at the end of the lanes.
A dozen rifle-team members including Kuzis gather their paper targets and then hand them to their coach.
“Consistency — this is what we wanted to see,” Ueltschi tells Kuzis, and pats him on the back.
Kuzis smiles, proud of his improvement.
He and the other members practice twice a week and will shoot in up to 23 competitions this year.
Doris Kuzis said she makes sure her son doesn’t eat or drink while shooting, keeps his shooting clothes in the gun bag and always washes his hands.
But at a practice earlier this year, some team members left practice without washing their hands and face.
Asked about it, Ueltschi said kids must be frequently reminded how to avoid lead.
A National Rifle Association grant had helped pay for upgrades to the ventilation and the building. Those improvements, combined with good housekeeping and personal hygiene, have lowered the lead levels of the team members, he said.
In January 2011, the county gave it a clean bill of health.
Ueltschi is thankful Clark County Public Health intervened.
“We saw everything that we were doing wrong, why it was wrong, what we needed to do and we did it,” he said. “Not only did it protect kids, it also saved the club from having to permanently close.”
Still, there are some ranges the coach won’t step into because they are so contaminated.
Ueltschi said the shooting public — especially the children just starting in the sport — need to be informed about the dangers of lead.
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.