As state legislators consider a new law that would require nonlead ammunition for hunting in California, the U.S. Army announced this month that it has developed nonlead cartridges for carbine rifles commonly used by soldiers in training and in the field. Advocates for Assembly Bill 711 in California – including Audubon California, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the United States – argue that the requirement is necessary because lead from spent ammunition poses a threat to both wildlife and people. The military, similarly, is responding to fears that the lead in ammunition poses environmental hazards at training facilities and puts range workers and soldiers at risk of lead exposure.
The military is so pleased with the performance of its new nonlead cartridges that it developing the munitions for additional weapons. The switch to the new “green” bullet in 2010 has eliminated nearly two thousand tons of lead from the waste stream, according to the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal.
Issues surrounding the use of lead ammunition in the military arose in the late-1990s, when lead discovered in Cape Cod water supplies was linked to the use of lead ammunition for training at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. The use of lead ammunition at that facility – declared a Superfund site – was halted. The incident prompted the military to review the toxic implications of lead use throughout the country, and many training facilities have subsequently been designated as lead-free.
But concerns about soil contamination are only part of the reason that the Army is moving toward nonlead ammunition. There is also reason for serious concern about the safety of personnel at shooting ranges.
The National Research Council late last year reported that outdated safety standards put personnel at military shooting ranges at risk for lead poisoning. The report noted that air measurements for lead at some military firing ranges often exceeded current OSHA standards, and at some Army, Navy and Air Force ranges, “by several orders of magnitude.”
While the cost of nonlead bullets is great than that of lead counterparts, military officials have noted that the cost of closing facilities or cleaning lead contamination makes the nonlead ammunition a less expensive option in the long-range.