Local firing ranges stay up to code to avoid lead contamination

shooting at Helderberg Rod and Gun Club.

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

A “freedom shot” is fired by Ronald Bernhard at the Helderberg Rod and Gun Club in January of 2014 as part of a demonstration, “A Shot Heard ‘Round New York State,” protesting the Secure Ammunitions and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act. The Helderberg Rod and Gun Club is a volunteer-run range in Knox with both an indoor and an outdoor range.

ALBANY COUNTY — As concerns over lead in public water has increased, concerns over lead contamination have gone unnoticed at either public or private gun ranges, despite several studies finding a correlation between such ranges and lead poisoning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study from 2002 to 2012, in which 2,056 persons employed in the categories "police protection" and "other amusement and recreation industries (including firing ranges)" were found to have elevated blood lead levels reported to the Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance program managed by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Another 2,673 persons had non-work-related blood lead levels deemed likely to be from recreational shooting.

In a study on lead issues at national parks by the National Park Service Office of Public Health, posted on the George Wright Forum, the risks of lead poisoning were examined in hunting, angling, and firing ranges; a connection between each 0f them and lead, was found.

Lead can be found in dust, air, water, or soil and can poison someone if he or she swallows or breathes it in, according to the New York State Department of Health.

Lead can be found in either ammunition — pieces of lead bullets can be made airborne by heat or friction from firing a gun — or in the primer, according to a publication by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The Voorheesville Rod and Gun Club offers trap shooting at $3.75 a pop to the general public at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays, says head bartender Joseph McAuliffe. The club also owns grounds in East Berne that offers a rifle range and pistol range to patrons, who use the land for hunting, camping, and other outdoor activities, as well.

McAuliffe described the club as a sort of social center in the village of Voorheesville, offering ham and turkey shoots and events like craft sales. The club also runs a bar, and 80 percent of the tabs collected are donated to charity, says McAuliffe.

Trap shooting involves shooting a clay bird from a trap with birdshot. For waterfowl hunting, steel rather than lead shot is required by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. McAuliffe says he can’t say what ammunition is used at the range, as patrons bring their own. McAuliffe can confirm that the fired rounds are cleaned up by an outside vendor once a month.

In response to questions from The Enterprise, Richard Barden, treasurer for the club gave a statement saying only that the organization was up to the code required by the DEC. However, according to Benning DeLaMater, a DEC Public Information Officer, the agency does not regulate gun ranges.


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In Guilderland, the New York National Guard and Army Reserve formerly used a gun range on Grant Road near the Normanskill Creek, but stopped using it in 2012, says National Guard spokesman Eric Durr. Instead, the New York State Police have been permitted by the Army National Guard to use the range since 2015.

According to State Police spokesman Mark Cepiel, the range is used by each trooper twice a year in order to meet his or her qualifications. Cepiel says the troopers will clean the range following shooting, picking up expended brass and pieces of the shot-up paper target. The bullets used by the troopers are various training rounds and vary in material, he said.

“Any debris items we don’t leave lying around,” said Cepiel.

Military personnel no longer use the range due to a change in United States Army standards for ranges: the Army now requires a 300-meter range with pop-up silhouettes to be fired upon, rather than the standing paper targets used at the Guilderland range. Other reasons include a requirement for a higher-velocity round (one more environmentally friendly than previous rounds, as it is made out of copper) that could potentially ricochet when fired, and the need for someone to stand guard at the creek running through the range to ward off canoeists from passing through, according to Durr.

John Martin, a regional spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, says the EPA has no regulations specific to gun ranges. Martin said there was an initiative, which ended in 2008, to encourage ranges to be environmentally conscious. This includes using netting or other barriers to prevent ammunition from entering the water or ground. He also said ranges were encouraged to dispose of lead ammunition in the appropriate facilities as hazardous waste. Martin said he is not aware of any current effort to regulate ranges, either from the EPA or from Congress.

Rita Young, assistant director for the Albany office of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says that gun-range employees can face hazards of either lead contamination or noise; the workers can then seek protection from the agency regarding these hazards. But, she said, volunteers at rod and gun clubs like the one in Voorheesville are not offered protections as they are not paid employees.

This means rod and gun clubs often do not fall under OSHA’s regulations, which state that employees should not be exposed to lead above 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, or exposed to noise above 90 A-weighted decibels. Both levels are based on an eight-hour work day.

A 2011 publication by the National Shooting Sports Foundation summarizes the OSHA General Industry Lead Standard in order for commercial indoor gun ranges to understand how to prevent lead exposure to their employees, who are protected under OSHA and could fine such ranges if exposure did occur.

Some preventative measures to avoid lead contamination include monitoring the air in the workplace for lead and providing an adequate ventilation system for indoor ranges.

The publication also provides information on the necessary equipment and gear for employees to safely clean up lead, such as air-purifying respirators. It also explains that clothing exposed to lead should not have lead dust shaken or blown off, but instead be immediately disposed in wash water.

The DEC does not allow the use of lead shot to hunt ducks, geese, brant, snipe, rails, gallinules, or coots, instead allowing nontoxic shots like steel, bismuth and tin, tungsten and iron, tungsten and polymer, tungsten and matrix, tungsten and nickel and iron, or other shot approved by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, according the DEC state website.

For fishing, the state has banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing less than half of an ounce. The reason behind these restrictions, according to the DEC website, is the threat to waterfowl.

The DEC also lists the positive factors of using non-lead ammunition while hunting wild game, such as avoiding consuming lead fragments in game meat and avoiding damaging the meat with shattered bullets (most non-lead bullets are harder than lead), and reducing the risk of lead being consumed by other wild animals such as bald eagles.

According to an initiative from the Institute for Wildlife Studies known as Hunting with Non-Lead, non-lead ammunition can cost more than lead ammunition, but is often equal in price to premium lead ammunition. The group also states hunters will have to learn to shoot differently in order to have the non-lead bullets perform in the same manner as lead.

According to Russell Kuhlman, Non-Lead Ammunition Outreach Coordinator at the Institute for Wildlife Studies, non-lead ammunition gained a bad rap in the 1980s for being high-priced and inaccurate, having a tendency to foul the barrel. Today, says Kuhlman, manufacturers have, after extensive research and development, solved many of the problems with accuracy and have significantly dropped the prices of non-lead ammunition.

“They are not going to cost any less than premium non-lead bullets,” said Kuhlman.

Kuhlman says the institute — a not-for-profit organization based in California with the mission of maintaining biodiversity — began conducting feral pig removal in 2004 from the Pinnacles National Monument in central California, when it was discovered that the population of California condors was threatened by lead contamination. The Institute for Wildlife Studies then hunted the feral pigs with non-lead bullets, killing over 300 of them.

In 2008, lead ammunition was banned from use in areas where the condors were located, and in 2011, a ban on the use of lead ammunition in the taking of all wildlife was created effective 2019. Kuhlman says the institute’s team serves to help hunters and ranchers switch to using non-lead ammunition.

An advantage of using non-lead ammunition, says Kuhlman, is that it doesn’t allow for lead to be ingested by either animals or humans. When a lead bullet enters an animal, says Kuhlman, the lead shatters and often remains in the flesh of the animal, which can then be consumed by a predator from the remains the hunter leaves behind or by the hunter from the flesh he or she prepares and consumes.

“When you use non-lead you don’t have any of these fragments,” said Kuhlman, adding that something like copper — used in non-lead bullets — is far less toxic than lead.

Kuhlman noted that the institute’s team does not take a stand on whether or not lead ammunition should be banned in any situation, but rather serves to help make the switch to hunting with non-lead ammunition in a case like California’s.

“A lot of our credibility is that we don’t take a political stand,” he said. “We don’t have a hidden agenda.”

Kuhlman also said that the group does not take a stand on the use of lead in gun ranges.

“Typically, at gun ranges, whether indoor or outdoor they have to take steps to reduce exposure,” said Kuhlman. “Every gun range is mandated to have some kind of mitigation.”

He added that he believed every few years ranges should have lead removed from their berms, and the lead is often recycled.

Michael Vincent, of the Berne Conservation Club, says the Hilltown range does not have any kind of regular cleanup or regulations imposed by an agency. He added that he did not think that there was a concern of a buildup of lead contaminants, noting that the outdoor range is mainly used once a week.


— Photo from Mike Vincent
Sitting on the clubhouse porch, Berne Conservation Club members Ryan Standfield, left, and Michael Vincent — spanning generations — pose with trophies won from the Schenectady County Trap League during a Sept. 10 shoot-off at the Iroquois Rod and Gun Club. Standfield took first place for junior shooters and Vincent took third place in Class C. Rod and gun clubs offer camaraderie and instruction; their firing ranges are often staffed by volunteers and so fall under no state or federal regulations for
lead cleanup.


Vincent, now retired, was a consultant for the state, and said his work-related physical exams often showed high lead levels in his blood, but he attributed this to his job using lead solder and painting with lead paint. He also said that lead shot and bullets are contained well and not directly touched.

“You’re really not handling it,” he said. He later added, “Any of the clubs make it safe as possible.”

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