The effects of retained lead bullets on body lead burden

Joseph L. McQuirter, Stephen J. Rothenberg, Gracie A. Dinkins, Mario Manalo, Vladislav Kondrashov, Andrew C. Todd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Background: Numerous case reports have demonstrated that lead poisoning with potentially fatal consequences can result from retained lead projectiles after firearm injuries. To assess the impact of retained projectiles on subsequent lead exposure in the population, one cannot rely on self-selected cases presenting with symptoms of lead intoxication. This preliminary study seeks to identify increased lead burden and identify risk factors of elevated blood lead levels for individuals with retained lead bullets. Methods: Forty-eight patients were originally recruited from gunshot victims presenting for care at the King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. An initial blood level was measured for all recruited patients and repeated for the 28 participants available for follow-up, 1 week to 8 months later. Medical history, including a history of prior firearm injuries and other retained projectiles, was taken, along with a screening and risk factor questionnaire to determine other sources of lead (occupational/recreational) to which the patient might have been, or is at present, exposed. The participants also had K-shell x-ray fluorescence determinations of bone lead in the tibia and calcaneus in order to determine past lead exposures not revealed by medical history and risk factor questionnaire. Multivariate models of blood level were made using risk factor and bone lead concentration data. Results: We demonstrated that blood lead tends to increase with time after injury in patients with projectile retention, and that the increase in significant part depended on the presence of a bone fracture caused by the gunshot. Conclusion: We encountered evidence suggesting that the amount of blood lead increase in time after injury is also dependent on the tibia lead concentration. There were too few cases in the study to fully test the effects of bullet location, or the interaction of bullet location with bone fracture or bullet fragmentation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)892-899
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2001


  • Blood lead
  • Bone lead
  • Complication
  • Firearm injury
  • Gunshot wound
  • Lead bullets


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