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Customs officers exposed to lead contamination at Wheatfield training facility

WASHINGTON – 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 25-yard 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 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.

Wheatfield gun range says lead contamination cleaned up

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