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Dangerous lead levels found at Ashland Armory

The Ashland Armory on East Main Street has been named as one of four Oregon National Guard armories that have dangerous levels of lead from indoor firing ranges that must be cleaned up.

The armory will remain open during “abatement,” or cleaning up with soap and water, followed by retesting on an ongoing basis, said Maj. Stephen Bomar, director of public affairs for the Oregon Military Department in Salem.

“Obviously, we take this very seriously and are proactively closing all indoor firing ranges in Oregon,” said Bomar.

Guardsmen use M-16 rifles and 9 mm sidearms at the range, which is on the east side of the drill hall. The lead bullets go through paper targets and hit a rubber backdrop, leaving lead dust to float around the entire armory, he said.

The Guard uses the safe level for children, 40 micrograms per square foot, as the top limit of safety. They found levels on surfaces ranging from a low of 3.5 micrograms up to “very high levels, requiring action” at 1,950 micrograms. No lead was detected in the air.

The armory on Tuesday was open to the public, with two guardsmen manning an entry desk and saying they’d had no cases of lead poisoning in the armory’s 27 years of operation. Signs on the doors said, “Warning, Potential Lead Dust Hazard. Pregnant or Lactating Females or Children Under 7 Years are Advised Not to Occupy the Facility.”

Fifteen guardsmen are there daily manning the post of the 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry of the National Guard.

Because lead is such a health hazard, Bomar said, the Army is seeking options with steel or copper bullets.

During the cleanup, guardsmen will use an outdoor firing range, he said, adding that the National Guard may go back to using indoor ranges if the lead problem can be resolved.

Bomar said the discovery of the lead was made by the Guard in November.

The lead dust can get inside the human body only by ingestion, said Bomar. Guardsmen at the affected armories, in Ashland, Pendleton, Bend and Portland, have been told to see a physician if they have any concerns about lead poisoning.

A May 21 lead dust survey by Golder Associates found the highest concentrations of lead near the doors to the firing range. It was also high at the other side of the drill hall. The survey notes the firing range has an air exhaust at the north end.

Results of ongoing retesting for lead will be posted at the armory, he said, and possibly on the National Guard's website.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.