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By Joshua Schneyer and Andrea Januta
FORT BENNING, Georgia (Reuters) 

Army Colonel J. Cale Brown put his life on the line in two tours of duty in Afghanistan, earning a pair of Bronze Stars for his service. In between those deployments, Brown received orders to report to Fort Benning, the sprawling Georgia base that proudly describes itself as the century-old home of the U.S. infantry

He was pleased. His wife, Darlena, was pregnant with their second child, and the Browns owned a home in the area. Their 10-month-old son, John Cale Jr, was a precocious baby, babbling a dozen words and exploring solid foods.

Cale’s duties as a battalion commander required him to live on base. So instead of moving into their own house, in 2011 the Browns rented a place inside Fort Benning. The 80-year-old white stucco home had hosted generations of officers.

Like most family housing on U.S. bases today, the home wasn’t owned and operated by the military. It was managed by Villages of Benning, a partnership between two private companies and the U.S. Army, whose website beckons families to “enjoy the luxuries of on-post living.”

 

Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades
Lead samples line up ready for testing at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, U.S. March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Wood

 

The symptoms began suddenly. At 18 months, JC would awake screaming. He began refusing food, stopped responding to his name and lost most of his words.

“He was disappearing into an isolated brain,” Darlena recalls.

For nearly a year, doctors probed: Was it colic? Autism? Ear infections? Then, in late 2012, came a call from JC’s paediatrician: He had high levels of lead in his blood. When Darlena told Villages of Benning of his poisoning, contractors ordered home testing.

 

The results: At least 113 spots in the home had lead paint, including several peeling or crumbling patches, requiring $26,150 in lead abatement

Villages of Benning moved the Browns into another old house next door.

The heavy metal had stunted JC’s brain, medical records reviewed by Reuters show. At age two, he was diagnosed with a developmental disorder caused by lead. Now eight, JC has undergone years of costly therapy. He excels at reading and swimming, but still struggles with speech, hyperactivity and social interactions.

 

The first home where the Brown family lived at Fort Benning
The first home where the Brown family lived at Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S. is pictured March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Wood

 

When a reporter met JC last year, the boy looked away and repeated a phrase from a children’s TV show: “Max, what did you do? Max, what did you do?” Later, JC sat outside and watched sunlight gliding through his fingers, seemingly lost in reverie.

“I’m sad that my son lost his future,” Darlena said. “It was because of where we were that this happened.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen to families like the Browns, who move often between posts for the U.S. armed forces, trusting base landlords and military brass to provide safe shelter for children and spouses.

Cale Brown, a 46-year-old active-duty colonel, now works on detail to the White House on the National Security Council, helping to protect the country from complex threats like North Korea‘s nuclear programme.

 

For years, he has told the Army of failures to defend children on U.S. bases from lead poisoning, a preventable household health hazard

Ingesting the heavy metal can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in children, causing brain damage and other potentially lifelong health impacts. But poisoning is avoidable if old homes containing lead paint are properly monitored and maintained.

“There is no acceptable number of children that the Army can allow to be so egregiously hurt,” Cale wrote in a letter to the Army Office of the Inspector General last year, describing the poisoning of JC and hundreds of other military kids he was aware of. He hasn’t received a response to the letter’s concerns.

 

 

For years, he has told the Army of failures to defend children on U.S. bases from lead poisoning, a preventable household health hazard. Ingesting the heavy metal can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in children, causing brain damage and other potentially lifelong health impacts. But poisoning is avoidable if old homes containing lead paint are properly monitored and maintained.

“There is no acceptable number of children that the Army can allow to be so egregiously hurt,” Cale wrote in a letter to the Army Office of the Inspector General last year, describing the poisoning of JC and hundreds of other military kids he was aware of. He hasn’t received a response to the letter’s concerns.

 

The Browns’ story and others, told publicly for the first time here, reveal a toxic scourge inside homes on military bases

Previously undisclosed military and state health records, and testing by Reuters for lead in soldiers’ homes, show problems at some of America’s largest military installations.

Federal law defines lead-based paint as containing 0.5 percent or more lead by weight. Sales have been banned since 1978. But many older homes still contain lead paint, which is particularly dangerous when it peels, chips or turns to dust – easy for kids to swallow or breathe in.

Reuters tested five homes at Benning, using a methodology designed with a Columbia University geochemist. All five contained hazardous levels of deteriorating lead paint within reach of children, in one case exceeding the federal threshold by a factor of 58.

 

Army residences, some of which are almost a century old and which house lead hazards, are pictured at Fort Benning, Georgia U.S. in this handout photo
Army residences, some of which are almost a century old and which house lead hazards, are pictured at Fort Benning, Georgia U.S. in this undated archival handout photo obtained by Reuters August 15, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING Courtesy The Columbus Museum, Georgia/Handout via REUTERS

 

Testing turned up problems elsewhere as well. At West Point, New York, home of the United States Military Academy, paint chips falling from a family’s front door contained lead at 19 times the federal threshold.

At Kentucky’s Fort Knox, whose vaults hold much of America’s gold reserves, Reuters found paint peeling from a covered porch where small kids play.

 

It contained 50 percent lead by weight, or 100 times the threshold

The Army requires abatement when certified testing identifies deteriorating lead paint in base homes. Yet it also “discourages” this type of lead-paint inspection  in part because lead abatement can be costly.

These homes put military kids at risk. Reuters obtained medical data from the Army showing that at least 31 small children tested high for lead at a Fort Benning hospital over a recent six-year period. All tested above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for elevated lead levels – 5 micrograms per decilitre of blood. Any child who tests high warrants a public health response, the CDC says.

Army data from other clinics showed at least 77 more high blood-lead tests for children at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Riley in Kansas, and Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas.

From 2011 to 2016, Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas – which processes blood tests from many bases nationwide – registered more than 1,050 small children who tested above the CDC’s elevated threshold, the centre’s records show.

 

Swab tests at residences in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S.reveal in red the presence of lead in this undated handout photo obtained by FOIA from the US Army
Swab tests at residences in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S. reveal in red the presence of lead in this undated handout photo obtained by FOIA from the US Army, received by Reuters August 15, 2018. To match Special Report USA-MILITARY/HOUSING U.S. Army FOIA/Handout via REUTERS

 

The thousand-plus blood results, obtained from Army bases through Freedom of Information Act requests, provide only a glimpse of the problem. A $10 finger-prick test can spot a child exposed to lead, yet millions of U.S. children are never screened. Just how many are tested across all military bases isn’t clear. But for those who are, the results often go unreported to state public health agencies that attend to poisoned kids.

Reuters found that Fort Benning in Georgia was not reporting lead results for small children tested at the base’s hospital. Nor was Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Georgia and Texas, like most states, require the reporting of all these lead testing results to state health authorities.

 

The Army declined to comment on the lead hazards Reuters detected at base homes

Asked about the broader findings of this article, a spokeswoman said the Army conducts yearly visits to ensure housing is safe and follows the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics when responding to children with high lead tests. Housing managers classify resident complaints about lead paint as “urgent” and seek to respond within hours, she said.

“We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment on all of our installations,” Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner said in a written statement, “and to providing the highest quality of care to our service members, their families, and all those entrusted to our care.”

The two contractors that operate Villages of Benning – Clark Realty Capital and Michaels Management Services – didn’t respond to requests for comment.

 

Keep reading …

 

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