Shooting and Pregnancy
Shooting ranges, particularly indoor shooting ranges, have been recognized as potential sources of lead exposure since the 1970s. Airborne lead dust is produced by the combustion of lead-containing primers, the friction of bullets against the gun barrel, and fragmentation as bullets strike the backstop. Lead dust inhaled into the lungs is extremely prevalent, with an absorption rate near 100% once inhaled. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established acceptable standards for airborne lead exposure in the workplace, including indoor firing ranges, since 1979. Guidelines for proper design and operation of indoor ranges include use of a separate ventilation systems for firing lanes, written protocols for range maintenance, use of wet mopping or HEPA vacuuming instead of dry sweeping to remove dust and debris, as well as the use of copper jacketed bullets. How closely an indoor range follows these guidelines determines the level of the hazard present.
Still, an extensive body of research is available showing that any lead exposure is harmful to the developing fetus. Lead crosses the placenta and is transmitted from the mother's bloodstream directly to the fetus. Lead exposure during pregnancy has been associated with serious, irreversible complications, including spontaneous abortion, premature membrane rupture, preeclampsia, pregnancy induced hypertension, and neurobehavioral effects in infants and children. Even at low levels, lead exposure has been associated with preterm delivery, congenital abnormalities, and decreased birth weight, length, and head circumference. The effects of lead poisoning in children are well documented. It is not a stretch to postulate that the same or even greater effects can occur to the central nervous system while it is still developing in the womb.
Loud noise is usually considered to be detrimental during pregnancy. In some countries, health regulations forbid pregnant women from working in surroundings with a continuous noise level greater than 80 dB or a rapid-impulse noise level greater than 40 dB, which is much less than the noise of a firearm. In the United States, the OSHA permissible exposure limit for rapid-impulse noise is 140 dB, with additional regulations for continuous noise. The sound levels of firearms are about 125 to 140 dB for rimfire rifles; 140 to 150 dB for rimfire pistols; and 150 to 160 dB for centerfire rifles, pistols, and shotguns.
Intrauterine measurements show that the fetus is not significantly protected against loud noises. One study in human volunteers found a maximal intrauterine noise attenuation of 10 dB at 4000 Hz. In a study of sheep, the noise attenuation was 20 dB at 4000 Hz, but the noise inside the uterus was 2 to 5 dB greater at 250 Hz. In comparison, foam plugs offer attenuation of 12 to 20 dB and are considered to be the least effective hearing protection. Common sense tells a person that noise travels more quickly and has greater effect in a fluid, such as is present in the womb.
Fetal response to sounds begins at about 16 weeks, and the ear is structurally complete by 24 weeks. At 25 weeks, a baby will move in rhythm to an orchestra drum. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, the intensity at which a fetus perceives sound is approximately 40 dB at 27-29 weeks, and decreases to a nearly adult level of 13.5 dB by 42 weeks of gestation. It would appear that even though the structures are all in place, the sense is not fully developed until birth. The truth is, we simply do not yet know at what point the fetus is most susceptible to noise damage of the ear.
Noise exposure during pregnancy has been associated with several disorders, including miscarriage, intrauterine growth retardation, preterm delivery, hearing loss in babies and children, altered immune response in the fetus, and hypertension. A combined exposure to noise and lead seems to have an increased toxicity, causing heart lesions, which are not observed for those agents alone.
Besides lead, firearms training exposes the shooter to other metals, including barium, antimony, copper, and arsenic. These metals can be toxic, depending on the concentration. The concentrations at a shooting session seem to be nontoxic for adults, but the risks have not been evaluated for pregnant women or the developing fetus she carries. Another source of chemical hazards related to firearms are the cleaning products used, many of which contain organic solvents. Some of these solvents are known to cause birth defects.
The available scientific knowledge does not provide evidence that firearm use is safe during pregnancy. Lead and noise exposure at both indoor and outdoor shooting ranges has been demonstrated to be significant. Data has shown that noise and lead exposure are significantly, undeniably toxic to the fetus during pregnancy. Thus, the only responsible recommendation that can be made is that a woman avoid the range environment while pregnant. Period. The consequences of not doing so are potentially devastating.
Pregnant women should not shoot firearms, unless in self-defense, and should avoid shooting ranges altogether. Women who are breastfeeding should only shoot lead-free ammunition. Pregnant women should not clean their guns because of possible exposure to chemicals. The guns should be cleaned by other people and away from the pregnant woman.
If a pregnant woman chooses to attend a firearms training session regardless, the following steps are recommended to reduce the health hazards to the fetus:
Use copper jacketed ammunition with lead-free primers
Shoot outdoors to reduce concentrated exposure to noise and chemicals
Shoot the smallest possible number of rounds
Wear a respirator with a high efficiency particulate air filter
Wash hands and face carefully after a shooting session with soap and cool water
Avoid drinking and eating within 1 hour after shooting session
Use a silencer if possible
Wear heavy clothing that covers the abdomen
Do not pick up spent brass
Do not clean firearms afterwards
Shower and change clothing afterwards
If you are an expectant father and are participating in firearms training:
Wash your hands before leaving the range
Launder your range clothing yourself
Clean your guns away from your wife
The precious miracle of new life is a gift that deserves protection. The effects of range exposure to the unborn baby are undeniable, irreversible, and could destroy your child's potential forever. Do not take the risk. Protect your child by avoiding the range environment during pregnancy just as you would protect your family by any means necessary if threatened. Parenting begins before birth.
Noise: A Hazard for the Fetus and Newborn
The American Academy of Pediatrics
PEDIATRICS Vol. 100 No. 4 October 1997, pp. 724-727
Lead Exposure in Children: Prevention, Detection and Management
The American Academy of Pediatrics
PEDIATRICS Vol. 116 No. 4 October 2005, pp. 1036-1046