A Nurse with a Gun

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Shooting and Pregnancy

The safety of firearms training during pregnancy is often questioned. In fact, it is asked often enough that the topic demands serious study. As women fill the ranks of our police forces and military, they are compelled to undergo firearms training, and organizations are compelled to realistically evaluate the risks should these women be pregnant. Health and safety considerations often mentioned include noise infarction to the fetus, as well as lead toxicity. Most obstetricians and family physicians agree that a pregnant woman should not expose her baby to a firing range environment, but the question remains, is this recommendation made in ignorance of the actual environment? Is the demonstrated anti-gun stance of the AMA and other physician organizations a cause to dismiss the available data? Searches of medical literature reveal no definitive answer.

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

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Anonymous Fisherman said...

Thanks for dedicating some print to this important topic. As a first time expecting father there are a lot of questions that come up. As a former special education teacher I am particularly concerned about these issues. Aside from the chemical issues there is the fear reaction of the fetus. They recoil from stimuli (high frequency sounds - I did a little research after posing this question on TFL.) I'm concerned about fear reaction and the development of fight or flight responses latter on. For that reason as well as those you listed we (my wife and I) will not be exposing our child to this activity.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Sterno said...

Same here. My wife is just now expressing an interest in having a gun of her own, but we're going to wait until after the kid is born and after she's done breast feeding to teach her how to shoot.

Better safe then sorry.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous shelia said...

It's about time!

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Tricky Vicki said...

Thank you so much for this information!

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best information available on this subject! Thank you!

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This information should be given to the different branches of the military. I am currently in the UNITED STATES AIR FORCE and was pregnant in February 06, went to the firing range in March 06, and miscarried in May 06. There was no way to know what happened to cause the miscarriage, however it is not herititory in our families and I was not exposed to anything else. I do believe after reading this article that the firing range (full of 25 students firing 100 rounds each, and picking up spent rounds when the course was completed) this is what caused my miscarriage, and I will not be more cauious. They tell us not to be exposed to fire arms after 14 weeks of pregnancy, i believe this should be changed to not at all!!!
Thank you for the information. I found it very helpful.

2:51 PM  
Blogger skyflier said...

Do you think a one hour session in an indoor range would pose a significant risk to a 32 week old fetus? I went to the indoor range just once for an hour and thought if I covered up with heavy clothes and a coat, it would be fine. My ob/gyn also said it was ok, but after reading this, I'm worried.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

First, there is little you can do now. Unless you wore a respirator, you likely breathed in low levels of lead and other chemicals at the range. Considering the risks, there is no need to put an infant at risk for permanent damage when a mother to be could wait a few months to go shooting.

2:00 PM  
Blogger skyflier said...

Well, I completely agree mothers to-be-should wait, now that I know what the risks are (I wish the range owner would have put up a sign). I also know that there is little I can do now, except not do it again. I guess I'm wondering if your study would suggest that even one hour in the range would put the fetus in danger of significant permanent damage, either due to noise or chemical inhalation, or if permanent damage occurs with repeat, prolonged exposure in a range, such as taking a training class. There probably is increased risk with increased time spent in the range, but I'm just trying to quantify what the ratio between time and risk might be and if the at ratio differs according to trimester. In short, I'm wondering if your research suggests that my one hour in the range put my fetus at risk for permanent damage and should I prepare myself for a handicapped child?

2:35 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

There is no way of evaluating the risk without knowing the lead levels present in the air of that specific indoor range during the time you were there. That is an unknown variable. Studies have shown that any exposure at all carries risks, but mothers have also borne perfectly normal children after having been exposed to lead.
This much we know.....lead crosses the placenta. Lead is toxic to a developing fetus. The question is......how much lead did you inhale? How much exposure was there? Variables affecting this include: How well do the range's filters work? How often are unjacketed lead bullets used? How far is the backstop from the shooters, and what type is it? How much airflow is there? what type of airflow is there? How often is the range cleaned? How is the range cleaned? Did you wash your hands afterwards in cold water? Did you eat or drink anything during the session? Afterwards? Did you change your clothes? The only way to make certain none of these variables have to be considered is to simply avoid indoor ranges.

There are many variables in the creation of birth defects. There is little that can be done at this point, except avoid repeated exposure, and observe your baby's progress. Educate your ob/gyn so another mother does not do the same thing.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm nursing and I wanted to train at the range and just found out about the lead thing. Does it make any difference if I were to shoot outside? Would a mask still be necessary?

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just did a search for this exact topic and I am glad I came across your site. I asked my ob/gyn about this today and she had no problem with me going to firearms training for my job. I am 10 weeks pregnant and considered high risk. She even wrote a note to my employer saying I can participate in the firearms training. Thank you for taking the time to write about this topic. I am not willing to place my child at risk for my job and luckily will be able to wait until after the baby is born to get trained. nebraskamom

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot find any info on how long it takes for lead to leave breastmilk. I'm not nursing very often any more with several hours in between, and my neighborhood is getting increasingly dangerous. There was a break in in my building last week and I want to learn how to shoot my gun now! Anyone know how I can find out how long it takes for lead exposure from a shooting range to dissapate in breastmilk?

9:11 PM  
Blogger emtcop4542 said...

I'm a police officer & just found out I'm pregnant with my second child. I didn't have to go to the range when I was pregnant with my first because I had already done our scheduled qualifications. I just saw on our schedule that I'm due to go to the range in 2 weeks. I'm only 4 weeks along and haven't told anyone at work yet. I guess I'm going to have to spill the beans because I don't want to cause harm to my baby. Thank you so much for posting this information.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 26 weeks pregnant and go to the indoor range once a week. My dad cautioned me this week about the risk of damaging the baby's hearing, but I had never thought of lead exposure, and nobody else had mentioned it to me. I am rather irritated with my OB about it because I asked what the risks were when I first got pregnant and needed to learn to use my gun for a self defense situation that may or may not happen. The OB said that there were no risks that she was aware of at that time but never told me about possible risks later in the pregnancy. I have an appointment this afternoon and I will definitely bring this subject up in conversation. I appreciate your info!

8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your informative page! I'm 6 months pregnant and thinking about getting a gun for home protection. Now I know I have to wait to actually go shooting, but I don't want to wait to make a purchase unless it's absolutely necessary. My question is what/how serious would the chemical exposure risk be from attending a gun show or two? There's no shooting there but I'm concerned about the large amounts of ammo etc.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

Anon, I honestly don't think there would be a problem with attending a gun show.

10:29 PM  
Blogger Sharyl said...

I am also newly pregnant and my husband and I used to enjoy shooting at indoor ranges. However, lucky that I read this post, because I was just considering taking him to the range for his birthday (we haven't been in a long time, even before I got pregnant). I am SO GLAD that I did a little research, because I would've been devastated if I went and then found out about the harmful effects. There is already so much to worry about without adding one more thing!
As for the lady with the breast milk question, I would suggest not exposing yourself to the range environment while nursing. Lead is not easily/quickly removed from your system, and ANY amount is unsafe for your baby.

7:34 PM  
Blogger MJ said...

I just wanted to thank you for posting this!!! We as a range have put up signs and are warning women that are pregnant or could be pregnant not to go on the range for the safety of their child.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, I do appreciate this article in that my husband and I were planning on visiting for recreational shooting practice. I was concerned about how much of the noise would affect a baby, but never considered lead exposure. Needless to say, we'll wait to head to the range. What I wanted to comment on was the number of pregnant women feeling the urge to learn to shoot for self-defense. As someone who has spent her life around firearms, I caution those women to slow down. "Learning to shoot" cannot happen in a couple of hours at the range, and certainly one cannot be prepared to take a life just because they can hit a target. While firearms are an affective form of self-defense, they could do more harm than good in an inexperienced home. I cannot tell you how many times I have read about a person being killed by their own gun. As a soon to be mother, I understand the feeling to protect your child, but self-defense firearms are especially dangerous in homes with small children. If you lock it up, you'll be less likely tobe able to get to it in an emergency. On the other hand, if your children aren't well educated about the firearm, you cannot afford to NOT lock it up. There are many other precautions you can take to defend your home while you study about using a firearm. After you're back on your feet, I encourage you to rent different firearms at your local range and take a handgun safety course. Then, if you decide that defending yourself with a firearm is right for your family, you can bring a gun into your home.

8:11 PM  
Anonymous SDG said...

As a Certified Instructor, I found this article and following comments very helpful.

One thought for women who are pregnant AND are are currently in more immediate need to learn how to safety work a firearm, I'd encourage you to learn the mechanics and practice the shooting fundamentals via dry fire. There are many classes that have no live fire, (classroom only.) There's a lot you can learn without going to the range.

Dry firing actually is an amazing training tool that increases your skills with no live fire or range time. Great Links for Ladies: http://www.WellArmedWoman.com and http://www.CorneredCat.com

Hope that helps. I'll be sharing this article to interested students and adding a link to my Ladies Links on my website.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an expectant father and am concerned about the ammo stored in our apartment. I searched the Internet but found no studies that correlate the presence of ammunition to birth defects.

My wife has not been to the range since getting pregnant. However I go to range once every two weeks. While I clean up before coming back home, my range clothes get washed with the regular household clothes. How much risk of lead contamination would this present?

2:52 AM  
Anonymous DMZ said...

We teach firearms classes all the time. I also teach all Women Classes in Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun. I always tell my women if you are pregnant or think you might be your welcome to come to the classroom portion, but not the range time. I also let them know they can make the live fire after they are done breast feeding.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Penny said...

I appreciate the information provided in the article, although I don't intend to follow the advise to completely avoid gun ranges when we finally conceive. I've already decided that if I don't suffer from complications, such as nausea, that may cause general discomfort, I'll still try to make it to the range regularly and listen to my body for signs of "enough", and will go according to that.

Our club's indoor range has restrictions on types of allowed ammo (they inspect every shooter's ammo if it isn't bought on site to make sure they're not lead), and the air conditioning system is strong enough to make you forget there ever was gunpowder in the gun. Thicker clothing around the abdomen will help muffle sounds, and we usually go during quiet hours to start with.

One of our weekly shooting sessions isn't usually that long, unless we're running in a new gun, so the exposure would be limited in the first place. And as a comment above from SDG states, dry firing is a good way of practicing without chemical exposure. This applies, pregnant, or not.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the lead worries of this article, however an easy fix is to go to an outdoor range. no worries about proper ventilation or lead build up on the floor and in the air! I went several times while pregnant and everything was fine. I'm also a bartender, I work at a very noisy club. With loud pumping music, I worked until I popped! My daughter has no hearing issues what so ever!! In fact, when she hears club music she starts to fall asleep. just as she did in my whom while I was working! The human body is a truly amazing thing, majority of miscarriages are biological not environmental. Your body is designed to grow and protect the tiny human inside you. Worrying about everything doesn't help anyone. Stay safe and be caucus but don't go crazy! Just because you do everything "right" by the professionals standards doesnt mean your in the clear. Stuff happens, some you can prevent, some is not worth worrying about!

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 6 weeks and 6 days pregnant. I went to an indoor range today and shot 100 .22 and 120 9 mill. and then came home and nursed my daughter. I'm devastated now after reading this.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Lauren said...

Thank you so much for sharing this information.

6:33 AM  

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