David Dorman, a professor of toxicology in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, led a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee in a one-year study that found current federal guidelines are insufficient to protect individuals at Defense Department firing ranges and other sites from a list of aliments associated with lead exposure.
Issued by the National Research Council, the report states that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the current standard should be revised for Defense Department workers and others to avoid heart and kidney problems, damage to nervous and reproductive systems, hearing loss, mpaired balance, and other adverse effects.
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) established the lead exposure standard in 1978 for most industrial workplaces, including military ranges around the world where uniformed and civilian personnel train troops in the use of handguns, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns. In addition to handling ammunition and conducting maintenance on ranges, these individuals are exposed to lead dust released by gunfire.
“Back in the 1970s OSHA personnel reviewed existing industrial standards and studying then available information related to effects of lead exposure and lead poisoning in people,” says Dr. Dorman. “They found that previous guidelines in the mid-1970s were not protective enough and put the current, then more restrictive policy in place.”
Dr. Dorman notes that during the past 34 years, however, a large body of research has emerged about the human health effects of various levels of lead exposure. Aware of these studies, the Defense Department requested the National Research Council review the 1978 rule to determine if personnel were protected adequately.
“The ability to measure lead in the body was not the major driver in changing the standards,” says Dr. Dorman. “Our analytical measures are and have been pretty good when it comes to lead measurement. What did happen was the reporting of a number of epidemiology studies that indicated various levels of lead can harm brain, kidney, and cardiovascular function and cause problems for reproductive health. We now know that exposure to even much lower levels can harm the fetus through the placenta or the infant through breastfeeding.”
Under the 1978 standard, a blood level of 40 micrograms per deciliter was considered safe. While some health organizations suggest that 10 micrograms per deciliter should be considered elevated and levels in pregnant women should be below five micrograms, the NAS report did not propose a new standard.
“We were charged with reviewing the data and studying the science related to the current standard,” says Dr. Dorman. “The development of a revised standard is a policy decision not in the purview of the committee.”
The report did recommend that the Department of Defense should review its exposure guidelines and practices for protecting range personnel and consider lowering blood lead levels.
Dr. Dorman, who has served on several other National Academy of Science committees, was selected to chair the 14-person committee based on his broad expertise in neurotoxicology and his ability as a veterinarian to help integrate information and perspectives from committee members representing various areas of environmental and health sciences.
He notes NC State has a number of faculty members who serve on National Academy panels and thereby contribute to the public health arena in a number of critical areas.
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under congressional charter. Panel members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion.
Pre-publication copies of “Potential Health Risks to DOD Firing-Range Personnel from Recurrent Lead Exposure” are available from the National Academies Press.