Cus­toms of­fi­cers ex­posed to lead con­tam­i­na­tion

Gun range where hun­dreds trained was found to have un­ac­cept­able lev­els

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jerry Zrem­ski

Hun­dreds of fed­eral cus­toms of­fi­cers in the Buf­falo area trained for years in a fa­cil­ity in Wheat­field that was found in De­cem­ber to be heav­ily con­tam­i­nated with lead – even in the mi­crowave and the cof­fee pot.

That’s the con­clu­sion a fed­eral in­dus­trial hy­gien­ist reached af­ter in­spect­ing the Ni­a­gara Gun Range. The fa­cil­ity, at 3355 Ni­a­gara Falls Blvd., had a con­tract to pro­vide U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion with space for firearms prac­tice and other train­ing for 600 lo­cally based fed­eral of­fi­cers.

“Wipe sam­ples re­vealed widespread lead con­tam­i­na­tion through­out the fa­cil­ity in­clud­ing sur­faces used for eat­ing, drink­ing and hand con­tact,” said the re­port that in­dus­trial hy­gien­ist filed in Fe­bru­ary, which The Buf­falo News ob­tained last week.

The hy­gien­ist’s work, which he con­ducted in De­cem­ber, prompted Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion to or­der blood tests for the of­fi­cers who worked regularly at the fa­cil­ity. Those tests found that two of­fi­cers had blood lead lev­els that were un­usu­ally high. That prompted them to be tem­po­rar­ily re­moved from work at the gun range and as­signed other du­ties, and to go for fur­ther med­i­cal test­ing, said Aaron E. Bowker, the agency’s lo­cal spokesman.

No se­ri­ous health im­pacts have re­sulted from the lead

con­tam­i­na­tion, Bowker said. But the cus­toms agency let its lease with the Ni­a­gara Gun Range lapse in Jan­uary.

“Un­sat­is­fac­tory sur­face lead tests re­sults was a fac­tor in CBP sus­pend­ing its op­er­a­tions” at the Ni­a­gara Gun Range, Bowker said. The agency since has done some train­ing at Wol­cott Guns in Depew, and may seek bids for a per­ma­nent train­ing fa­cil­ity.

A lawyer for Ni­a­gara Gun Range, Gabriel J. Fer­ber, said the fa­cil­ity’s owner has since hired a con­trac­tor to clean up the fa­cil­ity to meet fed­eral stan­dards – in­clud­ing the part of the gun range that is open to the gen­eral pub­lic.

But the con­di­tions at the fa­cil­ity last year still cause grave con­cern among lo­cal cus­toms of­fi­cers, said Paul Kwiatkowski, pres­i­dent of the union lo­cal that rep­re­sents most lo­cal Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion em­ploy­ees. He said cus­toms of­fi­cers with young chil­dren have been es­pe­cially wor­ried that they might have been go­ing home in cloth­ing con­tam­i­nated with lead, which can cause se­vere de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties.

U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion com­mis­sioned the study af­ter of­fi­cers com­plained about the con­di­tions at the gun range, where they had been train­ing for more than a decade.

“You couldn’t even breathe when you were shoot­ing your guns,” said Kwiatkowski, pres­i­dent of Na­tional Trea­sury Em­ploy­ees Union Lo­cal 154, which rep­re­sents cus­toms of­fi­cers in the Buf­falo area. “There was no fil­tra­tion sys­tem what­so­ever. The smoke was so thick, it was burn­ing your eyes and chok­ing you.”

Lead con­tam­i­na­tion has long been seen as a health con­cern at in­door fir­ing ranges. A 2017 Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health study found that among peo­ple who used such fa­cil­i­ties regularly, blood lead lev­els were com­monly found “at con­cen­tra­tions that are as­so­ci­ated with a va­ri­ety of ad­verse health out­comes.” But that fed­eral study also said fir­ing ranges can min­i­mize the risk of lead con­tam­i­na­tion with proper ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems that clear out the lead dust that re­sults when bul­lets are fired.

The study at the Ni­a­gara Gun Range, pre­pared by a fed­eral in­dus­trial hy­gien­ist named Jor­dan Hyde, found a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem where “the air velocity dropped to zero.” As a re­sult, lead par­ti­cles set­tled on the floor of the fa­cil­ity and ended up on the hands, boots, cloth­ing and equip­ment of the peo­ple who worked and trained there.

That meant Hyde found lead par­ti­cles through­out the fa­cil­ity. The ta­ble be­hind the fir­ing line in the 25yard shoot­ing range was cov­ered in lead par­ti­cles at seven times the level deemed as ac­cept­able by the Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The floor mats in the area where cus­toms of­fi­cers prac­tice de­fen­sive tac­tics were con­tam­i­nated with lead at 8.5 times the level deemed as safe. And the ro­tat­ing plate in­side the mi­crowave was cov­ered in lead at 10 times the rec­om­mended fed­eral max­i­mum.

In ad­di­tion, “the cof­fee in the of­fice cof­fee pot at the end of the shift also had lead in it,” Hyde wrote.

The lack of a work­ing ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem was only one of the prob­lems Hyde found. Peo­ple were al­lowed to sweep the floors with brooms, which only pushed the lead dust up into the air where cus­toms of­fi­cers could breathe it in or in­gest it.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly, the fa­cil­ity’s trap where spent am­mu­ni­tion was stored had sprung a leak – and the leak area on the floor was con­tam­i­nated with lead at a level nearly 167 times higher than OSHA’s rec­om­mended max­i­mum. Wrestling mats that cus­toms of­fi­cers use in train­ing were stored nearby.

Those are con­cerns be­cause lead “can cause per­ma­nent and pro­found kid­ney dam­age, ner­vous sys­tem ef­fects, high blood pres­sure and re­pro­duc­tive ef­fects when in­haled or ac­ci­den­tally in­gested,” Hyde noted in his re­port, which was dated Feb. 8. “Lead is also com­monly taken home on the clothes and shoes of ex­posed em­ploy­ees where it can have a more pow­er­ful ef­fect on preg­nant women and chil­dren.”

Hyde also tested the air near where cus­toms em­ploy­ees worked at the fa­cil­ity, and found that the air in the area used by a range safety of­fi­cer and a shoot­ing in­struc­tor had lead lev­els above the fed­eral safety thresh­old.

The re­sult­ing re­port is “alarm­ing on many lev­els,” said Katarzyna Kor­das, as­so­ci­ate professor of epi­demi­ol­ogy and en­vi­ron­men­tal health at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo.

Kor­das, who stud­ies the ef­fects that peo­ple may ex­pe­ri­ence from their exposure to lead and other dan­ger­ous met­als, said that cus­toms em­ploy­ees who worked at the Ni­a­gara Gun Range on a reg­u­lar ba­sis would stand a far greater chance of suf­fer­ing from lead exposure than those who trained there only oc­ca­sion­ally.

That means 15 peo­ple – the cus­toms agency’s train­ing per­son­nel who worked at the fa­cil­ity – would be at par­tic­u­lar risk.

Kwiatkowski, the union pres­i­dent, said about 20 per­cent of the of­fi­cers who used the fa­cil­ity are women. And Kor­das said exposure to ex­tremely high lead lev­els would be es­pe­cially wor­ri­some to them.

“For women, the con­cern is twofold: for their own health and for the ef­fects the exposure may have on their chil­dren were they to be­come preg­nant or breast­feed,” she said.

But’s that’s by no means the only con­cern the re­port presents.

“Are these peo­ple – the of­fi­cers as well as the in­struc­tors – are they track­ing this lead dust into their cars? Are they tak­ing it into their homes? And are they po­ten­tially ex­pos­ing their chil­dren?” Kor­das asked.

All of which raises the ques­tion: How could this pos­si­bly hap­pen?

Fer­ber, the lawyer for the Ni­a­gara Gun Range, in­di­cated that the lead haz­ard es­caped the no­tice of the fa­cil­ity’s owner, Keith Roosa.

“For a long time, they fol­lowed the the­ory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Fer­ber said. “So then U.S. Cus­toms swooped down and said: ‘Hey, it’s broke. Fix it.’ And they did.”

Fer­ber pro­duced a work or­der that showed that Roosa spent $45,000 on lead abate­ment at the fa­cil­ity this year. Fer­ber said the lead abate­ment project in­cluded a thor­ough clean­ing of both the area that cus­toms of­fi­cers had used as well as the pub­lic por­tion of the gun range.

In ad­di­tion, Fer­ber pro­duced a re­port from AMD En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­sul­tants of Buf­falo, dated just this past Thurs­day, show­ing that the fa­cil­ity had been cleaned up to meet fed­eral stan­dards.

“We’re hop­ing that once Cus­toms re­views that doc­u­men­ta­tion, they’ll con­sider com­ing back and op­er­at­ing out of that fa­cil­ity,” Fer­ber said.

“You couldn’t even breathe when you were shoot­ing your guns. There was no fil­tra­tion sys­tem what­so­ever. The smoke was so thick, it was burn­ing your eyes and chok­ing you.”

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