State health officials will be looking for suspected unhealthy levels of toxic lead vapors inside the Fairfax City Police Department's pistol range when they inspect the building's air ventilation system this week.
A health complaint alleging inadequacies in the building's ventilation system was filed April 18 with the state Bureau of Occupational Health in Richmond, said Clarence Wheeling, a bureau industrial hygienist. Wheeling said he could not identify the complainant because of the investigation.
An inefficient air system could lead to dangerous levels of toxic lead vapors inside the building, Wheeling said.
The practice pistol range is located on Pickett Road in the eastern edge of Fairfax City. The city's 54-member police force uses the 20-year-old building to practice target shooting.
Wheeling said most indoor firing ranges produce small amounts of lead vapors because police departments usually practice with lead-encased bullets.
Wheeling said poor ventilation at an indoor range, coupled with the presence of lead vapors, could aggravate and increase an already potentially dangerous condition.
Charles L. Clouse, northwest regional supervisor for the health bureau, said he would not close the pistol range while it is undergoing air quality tests.
"We would only close it if there was a very, very serious, serious problem," Clouse said.
Lead vapors are emitted when metal is exposed to intense heat, such as when a lead-encased bullet is fired from a gun. If vapors are produced in a poorly ventilated facility for a long time, Clouse said, then lead levels could grow dangerously high and become a health problem to those exposed.
Chronic exposure to high concentrations of lead vapors can result in severe medical disorders, such as kidney failure and nerve and reproductive problems, Wheeling said.
"The prime person who would be affected by the lead is the range officer who is there day in and day out," he said.
Loyd Smith, the city's police chief, said he was not surprised that a complaint was filed against his department for the pistol range. He said the current 20-year-old range was in "disrepair."
"The range is too small for us to use and it's in bad condition," Smith said. "It's getting below the state's standard for qualifying the officers . . . . It's in bad shape."
Last year Smith asked the City Council to assign funding for a new pistol range to be built on the same site as the current building. The City Council then appropriated $113,000 from its 1984 Capital Improvements Plan budget for a new range, but construction and equipment expenses totaled $146,842 more than the police department's projected costs.
Last week the City Council voted to reject recent building bids it received for the project. A council spokesman said the council is unsure if it will proceed with the project.
City Manager Edward A. Wyatt said the council will study alternatives to building a new pistol range. He said one solution is to use the Fairfax County police department's outdoor practice range on Popes Head Road in southwestern Fairfax County.
But Smith opposes the idea of using another department's practice range. He said the various firing ranges around Northern Virginia are inconveniently located and crowded, which would make it difficult for his police officers to schedule practice periods.
"The ranges in Northern Virginia are all reaching their saturation point," Smith said. "We can only schedule practices at other outdoor ranges on availability and not on a regular basis."
Mayor George T. Snyder Jr. said the council will study ways to redesign the new firing range to lower projected costs. He said the council could appropriate more money, but possibly at the expense of future city projects.