Virginia Tech researchers study effects on environment of lead from bullets

March 23, 2000

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 24 - Two studies done at Virginia Tech showed very little lead damage to the environment from bullets left on battlefields or on a carefully designed shotgun/rifle range. Their findings were presented at the Southeastern Section Geological Sciences Association Meeting.

In the first study, David H. Edwards, a graduate student in Virginia Tech's Department of Geological Sciences, and several other scientists studied the Blacksburg Shooting Range located three miles north of town in the Jefferson National Forest. The range was built and is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and is composed of a rifle range and a separate shotgun range. While high lead concentrations have been found on the range itself, relatively small amounts of lead have been found in the water on the range and no water contamination has been found off the range, Edwards said. "The lead is quickly weathered into stable lead minerals, and that minimizes the uptake of lead by groundwater," he said. However, the scientists found that damage by shot impacts to the trees at the end of the range is extensive and many trees are dying as much as 140 meters beyond the range, particularly in the first 90 meters.

"The range was constructed to minimize the effects of lead concentrations and serves a useful purpose for people who enjoy recreational shooting," Edwards said. Firearm vandalism to public property has been significantly reduced and the two tons of lead that would have scattered throughout the region has been concentrated and neutralized on the range. This is a useful service provided by the U.S. Forest Service and a carefully managed recreational opportunity for Virginia residents."

The scientists involved in the study in addition to Edwards were James R. Craig, geological sciences; J. Donald Rimstidt, geological sciences; Patrick F. Scanlon of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Thomas K. Collins of the Washington-Jefferson National Forest.

In the second study, James R. Craig of Virginia Tech's geological sciences department and several other scientists looked at the possibility of lead contamination from the bullets left behind on battlefields. "The countless battles throughout history have spread thousands of tons of lead bullets on every continent," the researchers said. "Today the concern of battlefield contamination has even led the military to turn to Œgreen' bullets. The question remains, 'What happens to all of that lead on those battlefields?'"

The simplest answer for most sites, the researchers found, is that the lead is still there, and much is in the form in which it was fired originally." They studied a variety of battlefields of differing ages, from early 18th century to the present, and in locations as varied as marine sand, deserts, coastal plain swamps, and uplands. They found that most of the lead is quite well preserved because it forms a protective coating of relatively insoluble oxide, carbonate, sulfate, or sulfide minerals.

"Lead metal dissolves readily, but once it oxidizes in a soil, the insoluble coating...retard decomposition," the scientists said.

The scientists in the study in addition to Craig are Rimstidt, Robert C. Whisonant of the Radford University geology department, and Scanlon.

The presentations (numbers 7106 and 2139) will be presented on Friday, March 24, at 3:20 p.m. in the Lightsey Conference Center Room 217 and 10:40 a.m. in Room 220, respectively, at the Geological Society of American's Section Meetings in Charleston, S.C. Approximately 650 geoscientists are expected to attend.

Virginia Tech

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