In an amazing three-part investigation, Seattle Times reporters Christine Willmsen, Lewis Kamb and Justin Mayo bring to light an occupational hazard not often heard about: the risk of lead poisoning at the nation’s gun ranges. They write that thousands of people, many of them gun range employees, have been contaminated due to poor ventilation and contact with lead-coated surfaces. Legally, gun range owners are responsible for protecting employees, but the investigation found that officials do little to enforce regulations. The investigative series offers a “first-of-its-kind analysis of occupational lead-monitoring data,” finding “reckless shooting-range owners who’ve repeatedly violated workplace-safety laws with no regard for workers who became sick. Other owners and operators were ignorant of the dangers posed by lead.”
Throughout the series, the reporters interview the victims of lead poisoning, such as James Maddox, a former gun range manager in Kentucky. They write:
Like many shooting-range workers, Maddox knew little about lead and its damaging capabilities. Daily, he inhaled airborne lead while managing the range and gun shop. Nightly, he swept up casings from spent ammunition in the 12 firing lanes, pushing a broom and kicking up more lead dust. The toxin landed on his skin and sank into his pores. Every breath pushed the poison further into his lungs, blood and bones.
He complained to owner Winfield Underwood that catch bins at the end of shooting lanes were overflowing with spent lead bullets, the ventilation system didn’t work and workers needed protective gear. Inspectors later discovered the air vents didn’t even have filters.
“It was just circulating the lead air,” said Maddox, who earned $9 an hour.
After working at the Louisville range about six months, Maddox, a hefty 38-year-old man, dropped 180 pounds. He also lost sensation in his fingers and toes. His head throbbed, his thinking slowed and he couldn’t remember birthdays.
Unfortunately, OSHA’s track record on inspections and enforcement seems severely lacking. The article notes that OSHA can’t determine just how many gun ranges have been inspected because they can’t track all the ranges in the first place. Apparently, many ranges register under categories such as “amusement and recreational industries” — one gun range even claimed to be a locksmith. And even when OSHA does take action, it may not stick. The reporters write:
In 2012, OSHA touted a crackdown at Illinois Gun Works, a firing range in Elmwood Park, a Chicago suburb. After federal inspectors found air inside the range contaminated with lead at 12 times allowable levels, the agency cited the range with 27 serious violations and hit it with $111,000 in fines. OSHA then hyped its enforcement in a widely distributed news release.
But since then, Illinois Gun Works has neither paid a dime nor fixed a single violation. Range owner Don Mastrianni, 59, a retired Chicago garbage collector, said he opted against making costly corrections after he learned his landlord was planning to demolish the building that housed his range.
Instead, Mastrianni kept the range operating for months before it was torn down in 2013 to make way for a new McDonald’s restaurant. Salvagers took no special precautions when hauling off the lead-caked debris.
In addition to telling the stories of gun range workers, the series also chronicles the effect of lead exposure on the families of workers. In the second part of the series, which investigates the nation’s worst known case of lead exposure at a gun range at Wade’s Eastside Guns and Bellevue Indoor Range in Washington, the reporters tell the story of construction worker Manny Romo:
An invisible assailant had invaded the bodies of Romo and his two kids, attacking their bones, brains and nerves.
They were contaminated with lead. And it came from an unexpected place.
In fall 2012, Romo had inhaled lead while helping erect a second story on Wade’s Eastside Guns and Bellevue Indoor Range. He was never warned about lead hazards from spent ammunition at the worksite and unknowingly tracked the poison home to his children.
Shortly before Christmas 2012, the Romo family evacuated their Auburn home, fearing for their safety and leaving behind contaminated furniture and toys.
Romo was one of 46 people contaminated by lead during the Wade’s renovation — the worst known case of occupational lead exposure at an American shooting range, according to public-health officials.
In other news:
Buzzfeed: Reporter Chris Hamby chronicles the story of Steve Day, who worked in the coal mines of West Virginia for nearly 35 years. Even though half a dozen doctors diagnosed him with black lung disease, Day initially lost his case to gain the federal benefits guaranteed to him by law, thanks to the opinion of a unit of doctors at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Unfortunately, Day died in July. Doctors who saw his autopsy report said he had one of the worst cases of black lung they’d ever seen. Hamby writes about Day’s life and story, the doctors who wrongly diagnosed him and countless other miners, and how Day’s willingness to speak out is helping others.
Wall Street Journal: Less than a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new safety procedures for workers treating Ebola patients, thousands of New York City health care workers participated in an exercise in the proper use of protective gear. Reporter Melanie Grayce West writes that the union-organized event was convened in response to worker concerns about inadequate training. West reports: “Patricia Kane, a 55-year-old nurse from Staten Island and leader of the New York Nurses Association, said that Tuesday’s ‘very informative’ training was a step in the right direction and encouraging. But, she added, repetitive training and lots of practice is needed, as is adequate staffing for patients.”
Salon: Cantare Davunt, a Wal-Mart employee from Apple Valley, Minnesota, writes about life making little more than minimum wage and explains why she joined fellow Wal-Mart workers in shutting down Manhattan’s Park Avenue while protesting in front of the luxury penthouse where Alice Walton, one of Wal-Mart’s owners, lives.
Forbes: The Huffington Post recently exposed a non-compete agreement that all Jimmy John’s workers are asked to sign, even those at the bottom of the wage ladder making sandwiches and deliveries. According to Huffington Post reporter Dave Jamieson, the “worker agrees not to work at one of the sandwich chain’s competitors for a period of two years following employment at Jimmy John’s. But the company’s definition of a ‘competitor’ goes far beyond the Subways and Potbellys of the world. It encompasses any business that’s near a Jimmy John’s location and that derives a mere 10 percent of its revenue from sandwiches.” Forbes writer Clare O’Connor asks if such an agreement has any legal legs to stand on. Fortunately, the legal expert she interviews doesn’t think any court would uphold it.
Buzzfeed: Imagine sending an email to your boss asking for a raise and copying 200,000 of your co-workers. That’s exactly what Wells Fargo employee Tyrel Oates did in an impressive email about income inequality.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.