Rush to Lack of Judgment: Senate Poised to Waive Toxics Law as Expert Science Panel Highlights Health Risks of Lead on Military Shooting Ranges

A new report by an expert panel of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences calls into greater question an effort by Senators to rush through regulatory exemptions for lead and other toxic chemicals. The bill is on the verge of being enacted by Congress, without hearings, discussion or debate. 

 The report highlights the lack of protection for health at many of the nation’s military shooting ranges from lead used in ammunition.  The military is still relying upon the workplace exposure standards for lead adopted in 1978 by OSHA.  Those standards are widely recognized to be vastly outdated based upon the intervening 30-plus years of scientific evidence of health harms from exposure to lower levels that were previously thought to be safe.  As the panel noted, “Lead is a ubiquitous metal in the environment, and its adverse effects on human health are well documented. The nervous system is an important target of lead toxicity, which causes adverse cognitive, mood, and psychiatric effects in the central nervous system of adults; causes various peripheral nervous system effects; and has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Lead exposure also causes anemia, nephrotoxicity, a variety of adverse reproductive and developmental effects, small increases in blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension particularly in middle-aged and older people.”

OSHA’s outdated protection levels for lead in the workplace (not just on firing ranges) include a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 µg/m3 in air) averaged over an 8-hour workday, and Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 40 micrograms per deciliter of blood (40 µg/dL in blood) (see OSHA limits here).  By contrast, for the general public the EPA limit is no higher than 1.5 µg/m3 in air averaged over 3 months, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just updated its recommendations for reducing lead exposure in children, setting a new stringent reference level of 5 µg/dL to identify children whose blood lead levels require case management.

The NAS panel determined that, “Data collected for the last 5 years show that the OSHA PEL for lead was frequently exceeded on Army, Navy, and Air Force firing ranges, in some cases by several orders of magnitude.”There was very little information available to the committee regarding levels in blood because the military has not to date done the necessary bio-monitoring.  Based upon the existing evidence however, the panel concluded:

 “A review of the epidemiologic and toxicologic data allowed the committee to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence that the OSHA standard provides inadequate protection for DOD firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by the general industry standard. Specifically, the premise that maintaining BLLs under 40 μg/dL for a working lifetime will protect workers adequately is not valid; by inference, the OSHA PEL and action level are also inadequate for protecting firing-range workers. The committee found sufficient evidence to infer causal relationships between BLLs under 40 μg/dL and adverse neurologic, hematopoietic, renal, reproductive, and cardiovascular effects. The committee also found compelling evidence of developmental effects in offspring exposed to lead in utero and during breastfeeding, and this raises additional concerns about exposures of women of childbearing age.”

The report details some of the major sources of lead exposure occurring at military shooting ranges.

“Modern military forces are trained on one or more small arms, including handguns, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns. Many of the projectiles used in military small arms contain lead. Exposure to lead during weapons training on firing ranges therefore is an important public-health concern. … Military firing ranges are specialized facilities designed for small-arms practice. Firearms can be fired inside a closed firing range or on an outdoor range. Both configurations have the potential for contamination with products of combustion (primary) or with a lead-based projectile (bullet). Depending on the weapon and the application, various specialized types of projectiles may be used. For example, jacketed bullets often consist of a soft lead core that is partially or fully encased in a shell of harder metal (such as copper). Jacketed bullets can minimize lead vaporization and particle generation. Other types of ammunition include fragmentation bullets and frangible bullets (projectiles that are designed to disintegrate on contact with a surface harder than the bullets themselves). The increasing use of full-jacketed bullets, alternative metal projectiles, and non-lead-containing primers should reduce airborne lead exposure during live-fire exercises.”

So, the nation’s major independent scientific body has just issued a report – requested by the Department of Defense – that makes clear exposure to lead from shooting ranges poses a serious but not-fully determined health risk to people working at those ranges.  Sounds like something that deserves additional attention, and possibly some action, not only by the DOD itself, but by the other federal agencies with relevant expertise in the area, including the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, the NAS report makes clear that DOD has not conducted the bio-monitoring necessary to do a more in-depth analysis of blood lead levels of workers at military shooting ranges.  Biomonitoring is an area where EPA could assist DOD, using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

But over the past few weeks the Senate has been considering two pieces of legislation, Senator Jon Tester’s “Sportsmen’s bill” and the National Defense Authorization bill, both of which – for no good reason anyone has been able or willing to explain or debate – threaten to weaken TSCA, the law intended to protect the public including workers at military shooting ranges -- from exposure to lead and other unsafe chemicals.   I’ve written previously about the provisions to weaken and undermine the toxics law here, here, and here.

The Defense Authorization Act just passed the Senate, and the amendment to weaken TSCA was not included.  However, Senate and House members will meet in conference to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, and the House bill contains the same provision that was offered in the Senate by Senators Inhofe and Manchin.  Meanwhile, there is still a chance that the Senate will move Senator Tester’s Sportsmen’s bill, despite lack of any hearing, debate, or opportunity to amend the bill to address the provision that would weaken protections for lead and other chemicals.  Objections from Senators concerned about the budget implications of the legislation have been resolved, potentially clearing the way for the bill to return to the Senate floor.

Rushing to enact legislation preventing EPA from using any of its existing authorities under TSCA to address chemicals used in firearms, ammunition and their components, as well as fishing tackle -- whatever the legislative vehicle – was always a terrible, and indefensible idea.  The new report by the National Academy of Sciences underscores the potential seriousness of the health risks posed by exposure to lead from military munitions.  And lead is just one of many chemicals that will be affected by the legislation. Congress should stop its headlong rush to enact this ill-advised and poorly considered measure.

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