The military’s lapses in lead safeguards leave legions of kids at risk. Private contractors house some 700,000 Americans at more than 100 military installations nationwide, including an estimated 100,000 children ages 0 through 5
Benning alone is home to some 2,000 small children. Of its 4,001 family homes, 2,274 “have lead-based paint present in them,” according to a Villages of Benning memo from November 2017. The mere presence of lead paint doesn’t make a home dangerous, but when the paint deteriorates, it is a “hazard and needs immediate attention,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
“These are families making sacrifices by serving,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a toxicity researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who reviewed Reuters’ findings. “It appears that lead poisoning is sometimes the cost of their loyalty to the military.”
Reuters began examining lead poisoning at U.S. bases last year, and in April began seeking interviews with Army officials. The Army declined to talk at the time.
After Reuters informed the Army and families that reporters had found hazards on bases, Fort Benning’s garrison commander, Colonel Clinton W. Cox, wrote to residents that “unknown persons” were seeking to test homes for lead and advised them not to cooperate. In a June 30 “Resident Safety Alert,” Cox told families to call 911 or base security to report such “suspicious behaviour.”
Cox said he was unaware of who had done lead testing in base homes when he sent the letter. “What we’re most concerned about is our residents’ security,” he said in a brief phone interview.
But behind the scenes, the Army also began quietly addressing some of the problems.
After reporters asked why it often wasn’t informing state health departments about poisoned children, the Army overhauled its practices to comply with state laws. When Reuters found unsafe conditions at Fort Knox, contractors announced a neighbourhood-wide lead abatement programme. After reporters found the neurotoxin in a child’s bedroom at Benning, base command approved the family’s move to another home.
A HISTORY OF NEGLECT
For most military families, living on base is an option, not a requirement, though it can be enticing. The gated enclaves are considered safe havens that build esprit de corps. They offer support for spouses of deployed troops, access to military schools, lodging for low-income families. About 30 percent of service families live on bases.
By the 1990s, the U.S. stock of military family housing – nearly 300,000 homes in all service branches – was decaying and starved of funding. “Continuing to neglect these issues runs the risk of collapsing the force,” the Department of Defense warned in a 1996 briefing document presented to a congressional sub-committee.
The same year, the military began privatising its homes. The initiative was the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing. It was meant to rid bases of substandard accommodations and save taxpayers billions by having contractors foot the rebuilding bill. In return, contractors would enjoy a steady flow of rental income over 50-year leases.
The military knew hazards lurked in its housing. In 2005, the Army released an environmental study that said 75 percent of its 90,000 homes nationwide didn’t meet its own standards of quality or safety. Of Benning, it said: “As homes deteriorate, the risk of children’s being exposed to hazardous materials … would increase.”
Twenty years after privatisation began, in 2016, a DOD Inspector General report found that poor maintenance and oversight left service families vulnerable to “pervasive” health and safety hazards.
An increase in Pentagon housing funds – $133 million – was earmarked this fiscal year, largely for overseas bases, where the military still owns its housing
Meanwhile, in recent years the Defense Department has reduced the housing subsidies that fund upkeep of privatised homes on U.S. bases, leading to fewer maintenance staff, the Army has noted.
The age and condition of base homes vary, and lead hazards are hardly exclusive to military housing. A two-year Reuters investigation identified more than 3,800 neighbourhoods nationwide – mostly in civilian settings – with alarming levels of poisoning.
Military families can face special difficulties if they complain about hazards in their homes, however. They are taking on landlords who are in business with their employer. Among the 60 interviewed for this story, more than half expressed fear that being identified could hurt a military member’s career.
But in private, some trade stories about unsafe homes. Darlena Brown helped create a private Facebook group with nearly 700 members. Many have shared photos of peeling paint, mould or other toxins at home and tales of unresponsive base landlords.
Reuters devised a plan to test for hazards in the homes and yards of some of these concerned families. Working with Columbia University scientists, reporters provided home lead testing to 11 families on seven bases. Eight homes had blatant hazards in children’s play areas – visibly peeling patches of lead-based paint.
Deteriorating paint from these houses – in Georgia, Texas, New York and Kentucky – had “very high” or “extremely high” lead content that puts children at immediate risk, said Alexander van Geen, a research professor of geochemistry who oversaw the lab analysis at Columbia’s Lamont Earth Observatory.
The true number of children exposed on bases is hidden by factors including the military’s spotty blood-testing and lapses in reporting to civilian authorities
To prevent further exposure, most state health departments track lead-poisoned children and mandate inspections in their homes.
Yet when Georgia health officials repeatedly sought test results from Benning, the base refused to share them, alluding to exemptions for federal facilities, state email records show. No such exemptions exist.
“They do not report to us,” the head of Georgia’s lead-poisoning prevention programme, Christy Kuriatnyk, vented about Fort Benning in an internal email to colleagues last year. “I’ve tried to get them to voluntarily report but that went nowhere.”
In April, Reuters presented the Army with evidence of its reporting lapses. In late July, the Army said it had “instituted new procedures to ensure that all reporting requirements are properly observed” nationwide.
‘NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT’
At Benning, private contractors took over the base’s family housing in 2006. They pledged to demolish thousands of dilapidated homes and build almost 3,200 new ones within 10 years. Estimated cost: $602 million. At the time, 99 percent of Benning homes predated the 1978 U.S. ban on lead paint.
The contractors were also required to maintain nearly 500 historic Benning homes, and agreed to control lead, asbestos, mould, basement flooding and other risks.
In 2011, a Villages of Benning agent took the Browns on a home walk-through before they moved in. Darlena expressed concern about lead paint.
“You have nothing to worry about, Mrs. Brown,” she recalled being told. “We’ve never had any problem with lead”.
The same year, Benning Martin Army Community Hospital recorded seven high lead results for small children, hospital records show. The hospital says it doesn’t know whether children tested there lived on or off base.
After moving in, Darlena asked maintenance to fix paint chipping around windows, but was told by a supervisor that the crew couldn’t work on historic windows, she said.
In 2012, JC and as many as five other children had high lead tests at Benning’s hospital.
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