Question from a
reader: I'm interested in casting lead bullets. My concern is
lead poisoning and my 2 1/2 year old son. Of course I'll do all of this out in
the garage, but will the smoke and vapor accumulate on the walls to the point
where simply touching them could cause problems? How old can a child be before
exposure isn't quite as harmful? I'm willing to put casting off for a few
years if that's what it takes.
As a Ph.D. chemist involved in the
environmental chemistry of heavy metals and heavy metal toxicology, perhaps I
can add a few helpful comments here. First off, you are right to be concerned
about your children. Lead is considerably more dangerous to kids than it is to
adults. A healthy 200 lb man can carry a lead burden (with no symptoms) that
would cause severe mental retardation in a 5-year old. This is because one of
the main effects that lead has is on the developmental biochemistry of the
brain and spine. Once you've grown up, lead can't enter that particular
pathway anymore. There are still other toxicity mechanisms to be concerned
about, but the neurological development of children is easily the most
serious. If you want to learn more about lead and its effects on kids, the CDC
has an excellent report that they will send you free of charge from their
website (I recommend this report to anyone who shoots cast bullets -- notice I
did NOT say "bullet casters").
As to your concern about fumes and vapors, my
opinion is that with the fan you describe, that is the least of your worries.
I cast in a lab-grade fume hood in my garage that should provide similar
ventilation to what you describe. I have been actively casting bullets for
about 10 years. My wife has her blood chemistry evaluated quarterly as a
result of having MS. They can't find ANY lead in her blood. Not just
acceptably low levels, they can't find ANY. So, with adequate ventilation,
general lead vapor contamination can be easily controlled or eliminated.
I would be much more concerned about general
"lead housekeeping", especially with small, teething age children around.
Discovery of an interesting new object seems reason enough for a child to put
that object in their mouth and chew on it (this is why we got rid of
lead-based paints). Ingots, stray sprues and shiny new cast bullets are all
potential teething rings, and should be kept away from children.
Don't think that just because you aren't
casting your own bullets that you don't run any risk from lead poisoning. T'aint necessarily so! Simply handling/loading commercial cast bullets
followed by eating, drinking or smoking can still put lead into your body. As
mentioned above, WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE EATING! Also, shooting on an
inadequately ventilated indoor range can give you a substantial lead dose from
the airborne lead oxide aerosol from the primers.
I know of at least two
individuals (each of whom haven't cast a bullet in many years) who have
suffered from severe lead levels as a result of shooting on an
inadequately ventilated indoor range. One had to go through over a year's
worth of IV chelation therapy and the other should, but is too stubborn
(or too afraid of needles).
I have been an active bullet caster for about
10 years now and my bullet casting has brought me countless hours of pleasure,
education and satisfaction. It's affordability has allowed me to practice
enough to become an Expert class bullseye shooter and allowed me to shoot
odd-ball calibers that commercial jacketed bullets weren't available for. It
is a wonderful hobby, but like any other aspect of guns, you have to THINK
about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Just like handloading,
bullet-casting is only as safe or as dangerous as you make it.
Question from a
reader: I've often wondered about the dust from my brass
tumbler. It seems like all the residue would collect in the media and would be
harmful. Is that in fact a danger?
I have often wondered about that myself. I have
no hard data on that one way or the other, but I believe that lead
contamination of tumbling media is inevitable due to residues left in the
cases from the lead styphnate priming compound.
BUT, I haven't lost any sleep over it and
here's why. Seven or eight years ago I was visiting a friend of mine who is a
commercial reloader; Mike processes more brass in a day than most of us do in
a year (for brass tumblers he has 4 cement mixers going on his back porch at
all times). I noticed that after he put his brass in the mixers, he would add
water. I asked him about this, and his response was "Ask any machinist, when
you want to polish metal, do they polish it wet or dry? They polish it wet."
Water also helps to keep down the air born particulates (ask any road crew,
wheat farmer or baseball groundskeeper). The lead is still there in my
tumbling media, it's just no longer easily inhaled. Now before you go hosing
down your tumbler, let me emphasize that there is such a thing as too much of
a good thing! For an average reloader's tumbler (12-14" in diameter) that is
properly filled with media, all you need is about a shot-glass full of water,
and no more than a 1/4 cup (more will just make your media clump-up badly,
make everything soggy, get caked-up media stuck inside your cases and make the
tumbler work harder to clean less efficiently). Add the water when the tumbler
is going so that it gets dispersed evenly throughout the media. This is an
electrical device and there are potential shock hazards involved, so make sure
the water goes into the tumbler bowl and not on the motor or floor. Your brass
will come out cleaner, come clean faster and airborne dust will be