It’s becoming a fleeting issue, but there are still ways to get exposure to lead

Handling lead bullets may be another source of lead contamination

“What do you think about broccoli?” Christine asked.

“I don’t,” I replied.

“Well, you must have eaten it sometime,” she insisted.


“Why not?” she asked.

“It looks funny, sort of like a green sponge that toads might pee on, it smells awful, and there isn’t a shortage of corn,” I replied.

“But,” she smirked at me, “Broccoli gets the lead out.”


In early 2021, I had emergency stomach surgery to repair a blockage. Being my fourth such surgery, I knew what to expect. Except this surgery was different. I didn’t bounce back, as before. I felt like what dog vomit looks like. I had been off cigarettes for eight months by then and I still felt awful.

Testing revealed heart issues that ended in quadruple bypass surgery in December and repair of a hole in my heart the size of a 12 gauge in March. Six weeks after heart surgery I was back to presurgery ability, still feeling awful. The hole repair did not help. Give it time, they said. Except that I knew something was going on. A nuclear stress test of my heart proved there was nothing wrong in that department.

Recently the search for another cause began, and one test revealed high lead content in my system. Which can create the symptoms I’ve struggled with for almost two years.

How in the hell does one get lead in their system in 2022?

Good question, but the answer is not surprising when I think about it.

In 1998, as a law enforcement firearms instructor, I often shot on the indoor range used for training. One day all of us were gathered up and given a class on lead ingestion, the precautions we needed to take to minimize lead exposure, and how to instill that in the students we taught.

There were several things, including judicious washing of hands and face, not eating, or drinking on the range — indoors or outdoors, and prohibiting those pregnant from the range.

Most of us had been lifelong shooters, and our employer demanded a blood test to establish a baseline. Most of us were old school and didn’t think much about folks looking out for our health.

Nevertheless, we took our blood tests and found that most of us had a minor amount of lead in our systems, but nothing I was concerned about.

Some might wonder, how does lead enter the body besides the obvious? You know the saying, “Oh he died of lead poisoning” meaning the person was shot. Without trying to be an authority on the subject, I’ve learned there are a variety of ways.

When using lead bullets without copper jackets, firing the bullets leaves some airborne lead in the air, which may then be inhaled or ingested. Handling these bullets also may transfer lead to your system, or in one extreme case, a fellow who carried exposed lead .22 rimfire ammunition loose in his pockets for years lost a testicle to lead poisoning.

Emissions from either end of the gun may contain miniscule lead particles

Another source of lead for shooters is the lead styphnate in primers. The airborne particles created when the primer explodes infiltrates the air in the immediate area. While this isn’t a significant source of lead, it can be a cumulative thing and become a problem.

The other source, my favorite, is retained bullet fragments, also called RBFs by professionals or smart-aleck shooting partners. That’s when you’ve been shot but didn’t die, and lead particles from expanding bullets or shot pellets remain in your system. According to people who know about these things, if the RBF is stranded in soft tissue, not close to an artery, it will likely be benign. If the RBF is disturbed and moves near an artery, it can create some trouble.

I have an RBF, which I had forgotten about until the test result reminded me.

During the fall of 1968, while duck and goose hunting with my dad and his buddies, we were getting set to approach a cattail slough where geese had spent the night and would leave soon.

Another hunting party had set up on the far side and to avoid getting peppered with shot, I was specifically told not to go past a point on the slough.

When a 10-year-old boy who loves something more than life itself can’t wait to get out there and do it, things lose meaning in translation. When I arrived at the point I was not to pass, I could see the geese through the cover of the cattails that concealed me. They were about 75 yards too far for me to get a shot when they lifted.


The rational mind of the male child may not seem rational to anyone but themselves. As I stood in the drizzle, the wind at my back, I reasoned that since I couldn’t see anyone on the other side, the direction from which a shot could hit me, if I snuck through the cattails and positioned myself across from the geese, I would have an excellent opportunity to bag one. It was a shallow slough, and I figured I could retrieve it, and no one would even notice I wasn’t where I was supposed to be if I had a goose.

It did not occur to me that anyone firing from the other side would be using BB-size shot, and this was in the days of lead shot, prior to it being banned for waterfowl, and how it might carry far.

Once I was In position, the geese started to honk and carry on, the prelude to flight. As soon as the geese lifted, the opposite shore erupted in gunfire, and I felt stings in my right leg and groin. I momentarily forgot about the geese. My immediate focus was how to prevent anyone from finding out I had been shot, especially my mother, who thought I should be in Sunday school instead of hunting. She would prohibit me from further endeavors if she found out.

Quickly I slipped my pants down, saw three holes and used my pocketknife to dig the shot out of the holes in my leg. The other wound was too deep, and I left it there, thinking it would dissolve.

The only people I told were my buddies at school. You cannot be 10 years old, get shot and not tell the tale.

Many years later, an X-ray revealed that, nope, it didn’t dissolve. I don’t know if this pellet has contributed to my condition, or if lead is even the cause of my symptoms. But I figured it worth telling in case someone else has similar troubles.

I am delighted to report that my smart-aleck partner, after being peppered with shotshell pellets on opening day of waterfowl season, has the same number of holes in her body that she started the day with.

Now, it’s off to gag down a toadstool.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting.