Shooting While Pregnant: Dangerous or Not?
By Elizabeth Kennedy and Fabrice Czarnecki, M.D.
Unfortunately, there are no definitive studies that clearly answer this question.
When this topic first came up this author contacted several respected
doctors for their opinion (including the co-author of this article) as
to whether a pregnant student should participate in a firearms training
course for women. The doctors we contacted seemed to agree that there
was no reason why she shouldn't shoot. We knew the range was lead-free
and the ammunition was frangible, and with that proviso, the doctors all agreed.
Then someone brought up the question of the noise, and no one seemed to
have any answers as to whether that could harm the baby, and thus began
a quest to find out the truth about shooting and pregnancy.
This is an important topic for women in law enforcement, and right now
EVEN IF agencies do have a policy in place, that policy isn't based on
factual information that comes from studies on shooting while pregnant.
(See sidebar on Policy.) Firearms instructors and range officers in
most police departments don't have medical degrees, and so armed with
whatever knowledge and experience they have, they make their best guess.
That is, unless an order comes "down from above" which usually means
the lawyers had a hand in it. It's strictly liability protection, but
if that is in the best interests of mother and child, that's fine.
Many experts in the field share the same sentiments regarding training courses. Massad Ayoob, a widely regarded expert in the industry says: "I recall one obstetrician writing a few years ago that you shouldn't worry about it. That said, I can usually taste lead after I've been on a 'lead free range.' And I'm not a fetus. My own gut reaction is not to do it."
But when it comes to qualifying to keep your job, it's a different
story. Many experts, such as Lyn Bates, believe that it can be done
safely. Lyn is a competitive shooter, a firearms and self defense
instructor, Contributing Editor for Women and Guns, and Vice President
of AWARE (Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment). While she
encourages pregnant women generally not to shoot, when it comes to a
qualification for an officer, Lyn states:
I see no reason why a police officer should not be able to qualify when
pregnant, because this usually involves a limited number of rounds and a
short duration on the range. Of course, this is provided that some
reasonable accommodations are made. [Some examples are] using an
outdoor range, using lead-free ammunition, wearing an appropriate mask
with a special HEPA filter rated for lead, having someone else pick up
spent brass, shooting alone on a range (instead of simultaneously with
many other shooters putting lead into the air), or using a simulation
shooting system that does not use live ammo.
Following are some of the facts we found. Hopefully this will arm
pregnant officers with the information they need to know when faced with
the question of whether or not to shoot and/or qualify.
Lead and Noise
It appears that the two major concerns are lead exposure and noise
exposure. In conducting our research, while we found very little
factual information available on shooting during pregnancy, we were able
to find a good amount of data on exposure to lead and noise during pregnancy.
There is an extensive body of research that indicates that lead exposure
is toxic to adults as well as a developing embryo or fetus. And we also
know that lead is transferred from the mother to the fetus. Lead
exposure has been associated with: decreased birth weight and head
circumference, (even at very low exposure levels), miscarriage,
premature delivery and pre-eclampsia (a severe complication of
pregnancy) as well as causing behavioral effects in infants and
children. One study stated that premature delivery and a decreased
growth stature "have all been associated with prenatal lead exposure at "acceptable" levels."
Armed with that information, it is easy to minimize lead exposure when
using firearms, and knowledgeable firearms instructors have taken steps
to protect themselves from lead exposure with excellent results.
According to Lyn Bates, these are some of the ways that shooters can get
high lead levels:
a.. Shooting on an indoor range, especially one that is inadequately ventilated
b.. Shooting lead ammunition (and primers)
c.. Handling/loading lead bullets (including putting rounds with
exposed lead tips into magazines)
d.. Cleaning up a range (especially picking up or sweeping material
from the floor or bullet trap area)
e.. Eating or drinking on a range
f.. Failing to thoroughly wash hands and mouth after shooting (or
washing with hot water instead of cool)
g.. Failing to change clothes after returning home after shooting
(especially on an indoor range)
h.. Failing to wear gloves when cleaning guns
Ms. Bates believes that lead exposure can be controlled, and she is in
good company. Dr. Heiskell agrees. Lawrence E. Heiskell, M.D., FACEP,
FAAFP has ten years experience as a SWAT team physician, and is
currently a Reserve Police Officer, as well as a firearms instructor and
Medical Director or Heckler and Koch's Tactical Emergency Medicine Program.
Toxicity from other chemicals and heavy metals
Besides lead, shooting and cleaning a firearm exposes you to other
chemicals, including cleaning solvents, and other heavy metals,
including barium, antimony, copper and arsenic. It is not clear whether
these chemicals are safe or dangerous for the fetus, during or after a
shooting session. Pregnant or not, it's just safer to conduct all
firearm cleaning activities outdoors or in very well ventilated areas.
Noise, especially very loud noise and chronic exposure to loud noise, is
usually considered as detrimental during the pregnancy. In most
European countries, health regulations forbid pregnant women to work in
surroundings with a level over 80 dB continuous noise and rapid impulse
noise changes of 40 dB, which is much less than the noise of a firearm.
In the United States, the Department of Labor limit for impulse (not
continuous) noise is 140 dB (Dept. of Labor Bulletin #334, 1971) with
additional regulations for ongoing noise. The sound levels of firearms
are about 125-140 dB for rimfire rifles, 140-150dB for rimfire pistols,
and 150-160 dB for centerfire rifles, pistols, and shotguns.
Intrauterine measurements in some studies showed that the fetus was not
significantly protected against loud noises. One study, in human
volunteers, found noise only diminished by 10 dB at 4000 Hz. As a
comparison, foam plugs generally offer a protection of 12 to 20 dB, and
are considered as the least effective hearing protection. However,
studies involving sound can be suspect. Silencer manufacturers, who
work very carefully with sound will tell you that with small positioning
changes in the microphones, you can dramatically change the results of the tests.
Silencers/suppressors, although not readily available to the average
woman, could be very beneficial to the pregnant officer who shoots a
firearm, in that it can reduce the report of each shot by approximately
30 db. Unlike what we see on television, that's still pretty darn loud
though, and you still need to wear good hearing protection. It does not
totally reduce the noise of the firearm, and would not stop the sound
from reaching the fetus.
Numerous studies demonstrate that exposure to noise during pregnancy,
has been linked to such disorders as miscarriage, intrauterine
growth retardation, premature delivery (less than 37
weeks), decreased birth weight, hearing loss in babies and
children, altered immune response in the fetus and hypertension
during pregnancy (a potentially severe disorder). Interestingly, one
study showed that a combined exposure to noise and lead seemed to have
an increased toxicity, causing heart lesions, which was not observed for
either of those agents in isolation. The question again, is "how
relevant are the studies to our very specific question?" The answer
again, is "we just don't know." Is it something we want to chance?
One thing we do know is that fetal response to sounds begins at about 16
weeks, and the ear is structurally complete by 24 weeks. (At 25
weeks, a baby will move in rhythm to an orchestra drum!) According to
The American Academy of Pediatrics, "the hearing threshold (the
intensity at which one perceives sound) is approximately 40 dB at 27-29
weeks, and decreases to a nearly adult level of 13.5 dB by 42 weeks of
gestation." It would appear that even though the structures are all in
place, the sense is not full developed until birth. We also don't know
at what point the fetus is most susceptible to noise damage of the ear,
whether it's during the first trimester, second or third.
Interestingly, "the vestibular system, [the part of the ear] designed to
register head and body motion, as well as the pull of gravity, begins
developing at eight weeks." It is believed that "receptive hearing
begins with the skin and skeletal framework, [and] is then amplified
with vestibular and cochlear information as it becomes available.hearing
is clearly a major information channel operating 24 weeks before
One other aspect that we haven't addressed so far is the mindset of the
mother. Does shooting cause high levels of an unpleasant type of stress
or is shooting fun and exciting for the mother? Certainly how the
mother feels emotionally about shooting will have either a positive or
negative effect on the baby as well.
Current scientific knowledge does not bring any evidence that shooting
is safe during pregnancy. While current data clearly shows that noise
and lead can be significantly toxic during pregnancy, we don't have any
data that is specific to shooting and pregnancy. More research is
clearly needed in this area. However, at this point, author Fabrice
Czarnecki recommends that pregnant women don't shoot, and avoid firing ranges.
It is the carefully considered opinion of the authors that pregnant
women should evaluate the risks involved in consultation with her
doctor. Obviously, shooting in self-defense if needed would be
recommended, but shooting on regular basis during pregnancy would just
increase the risks to both mother and child. It is recommended that
pregnant women avoid working on or near firing ranges where chronic
noise and lead exposure would be an issue. Commercial shooting schools
should carefully consider whether or not to allow pregnant women on
their courses, or on the ranges, and with what safety measures in place. Gila Hayes of the Firearms Academy of Seattle does not allow pregnant women on the range, even as visitors.
Most of the experts agree that pregnant women should not clean their
guns, to reduce exposure to chemicals. Guns should be cleaned by other
people, away from the pregnant woman.
Law enforcement agencies and the military need to consider development
of safer alternative solutions to live-fire qualification for pregnant
officers, using systems like FATS simulators (or other brands), BeamHit,
and Airmunition. The technology is now in place to offer this.
Agencies which allow their pregnant officers to continue to carry their
firearm past their qualification can be liable; this protects the
officer and the agency. However, in some cases, the physical aspects of
qualifying could be inappropriate for pregnant women, reminds Sgt. Greg
Conrad of the New York State Courts, especially if this is "including
running, kneeling and shooting while prone." This will vary, dependant
on each state or agency's standards.
For the woman who must shoot while pregnant, we recommend:
- Discuss this with your doctor, and show him/her this article
- Use lead-free ammo (with lead-free primers)
- Shoot outdoors (to reduce exposure to noise and chemicals)
- Shoot the smallest possible number of rounds
- Wear a respirator
- Wash hands carefully (3 times) with cold water
- Do not drink/eat within 1 hour after shooting
- Use a silencer when possible
- Wear heavy clothing and or soft body armor covering the abdomen
Ken Cooper of Tactical Handgun Training of NY adds, "I would also
recommend that the qualifying instructor separate the pregnant woman
from the other officers and qualify them separately" to minimize noise
exposure from other shooters. Ken believes that, "Shooting, whether for
work, pleasure or sport is inherently dangerous. It is up to the
individual officer to investigate all challenges to her safety and the
safety of her baby."
As one of our colleagues (a female police sergeant) recently remarked,
"pregnancy is a temporary condition. Why risk it?" Dr. Heiskell stated, "As in any job, pregnant female police officers
should exercise good common sense and use extra care while on the firing
range to minimize risks of injury to the mother and the fetus, and
should follow department policies regarding pregnant females."
The authors would like to thank all of those who assisted with the research of this article. The authors welcome your
comments and feedback.
About the Authors
Elizabeth Kennedy is a Founding Director of the American Women's Self
Defense Association, as well as Vice President of Modern Warrior AE
Defensive Tactics in New York, as well as an active member of the
American Society for Law Enforcement Training since 1987. Contact Liz
Fabrice Czarnecki, M.D., M.A., M.P.H. is an Emergency Physician, and
holds a Master's degree in Public Health. Fabrice is the Medical
Advisor for the American Society for Law Enforcement Training and the
American Women's Self Defense Association. Contact Fabrice at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead is transferred from the mother to the fetus.1
Lead is known to be toxic to the fetus, and exposure during pregnancy is associated with the following disorders:
- Decreased birth weight and head circumference, even at very low exposure levels2
- Miscarriage, premature delivery and pre-eclampsia (a severe complication of pregnancy)3
- Behavioral effects in infants and children1
A study stated that premature delivery and a decreased growth stature “have all been associated with prenatal lead exposure at "acceptable" levels.”4
Toxicity from other products
Besides lead, shooting and cleaning a firearms will expose you to other chemicals, including cleaning solvents, and the following heavy metals: barium, antimony, copper and arsenic.5 It is not clear whether these chemicals are safe or dangerous for the fetus, during a shooting session. They can be toxic depending on the concentration.
Noise is usually considered as detrimental during the pregnancy. In most European countries, health regulations forbid pregnant women to work in surroundings with a level over 80 dB continuous noise and rapid impulse noise changes of 40 dB, which is much less than the noise of a firearm.6 The sound levels of firearms are about 125-140 dB for rimfire rifles, 140-150dB for rimfire pistols fire, and 150-160 dB for centerfire rifles, pistols, and shotguns.7
Intrauterine measurements showed that the fetus was not significantly protected against loud noises.8 One study, in human volunteers, found a maximal noise attenuation of 10 dB at 4000 Hz.9 In ewes, the noise attenuation was 20 dB at 4000 Hz, but the noise inside the uterus was actually 2 to 5 dB greater at 250 Hz.10 As a comparison, foam plugs offer a protection of 12 to 20 dB, and are considered as the least effective hearing protection.7
Exposure to noise, during pregnancy, is linked to the following disorders:
- Intrauterine growth retardation and decreased birth weight12,13,14,16
- Premature delivery (less than 37 weeks)12,15,16
- Hearing loss in babies and children17
- Altered immune response in the fetus18
- Hypertension during pregnancy (a potentially severe disorder)12
Interestingly, a combined exposure to noise and lead seems to have an increased toxicity, causing heart lesions, which are not observed for either of those agents in isolation.19
Current scientific knowledge does bring any evidence that shooting is safe during pregnancy. In the contrary, current data shows that noise and lead are significantly toxic during pregnancy.
We recommend that pregnant women do not shoot firearms, unless in self-defense, and stay clear from shooting ranges. Commercial shooting schools should not allow pregnant women on their courses, or on the ranges.
Pregnant women should not clean their guns, to reduce exposure to chemicals. The guns should be cleaned by other people, away from the pregnant woman.
Law enforcement agencies and the military should ban live firearm training during pregnancy, and development of alternative solutions to live-fire qualification for pregnant officers, using systems like FATS simulators (or other brands), BeamHit, and Airmunition.
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3. Winder C. Lead, reproduction and development. Neurotoxicology. 1993 Summer-Fall;14(2-3):303-17.
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13. Hruba D, Kukla L, Tyrlik M. Occupational risks for human reproduction: ELSPAC Study. European Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy and Childhood. Cent Eur J Public Health. 1999 Nov;7(4):210-5.
14. Hartikainen AL, et al. Effect of occupational noise on the course and outcome of pregnancy. Scand J Work Environ Health. 1994 Dec;20(6):444-50.
15. Luke B, et al.. The association between occupational factors and preterm birth: a United States nurses' study. Research Committee of the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1995 Sep;173(3 Pt 1):849-62.
16. Nurminen T. Female noise exposure, shift work, and reproduction. J Occup Environ Med. 1995 Aug;37(8):945-50.
17. Pierson LL. Hazards of noise exposure on fetal hearing. Semin Perinatol. 1996 Feb;20(1):21-9.
18. Sobrian SK, et al. Gestational exposure to loud noise alters the development and postnatal responsiveness of humoral and cellular components of the immune system in offspring. Environ Res. 1997;73(1-2):227-41.
19. Cary R, Clarke S, Delic J. Effects of combined exposure to noise and toxic substances--critical review of the literature. Ann Occup Hyg. 1997 Aug;41(4):455-65.