Lead poisoning is a widespread and growing problem at Army bases, according to investigative reporting from Reuters.
Unfortunately, no one has a clear picture of the extent of lead poisoning in military children because the Army often failed to report test results to state authorities.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas processed over 1,000 blood tests for lead in young children that showed elevated results. Brooke Army Medical Center reported testing approximately 200 children per year in that 5-year span.
This blood test is a simple finger-prick blood draw and costs approximately $10. Many, if not most, U.S. children go untested for lead every year. It is unclear how many military-connected children do or do not get tested for lead poisoning annually.
Texas, like most states, requires that all elevated testing results be reported to the state authorities. However, Brooke did not report their findings in many cases. Neither did Fort Benning, Ga.
This lack of reporting kept state and federal authorities in the dark about the growing issues surrounding lead poisoning in military children.
Military Response to Investigation
After Reuters investigative reporting uncovered the Army’s lead-based problems, the Army drafted a plan to test 40,000 possibly lead-contaminated homes on military bases nationwide. Homes with young children – an at-risk population – would have the highest priority for immediate testing. Approximately 100,000 children live in military housing.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we are going above and beyond current requirements to ensure the safety of our soldiers and their families who work and live on all of our installations,” Army spokesperson Colonel Kathleen Turner said in a statement. “We are currently evaluating all options to address these concerns.”
Homes built before 1978 would be tested for lead contamination in the soil, water, paint and other likely areas in the residence.
However, these far-reaching plans to rectify a potentially dangerous situation are not approved for action as of August 28.
Aging Military Family Housing Linked as Possible Source
Military family housing began to change hands from Defense Department management to private management in the 1990s. At the time, on-base homes were often old and in a state of disrepair. Contractors were brought in by the private companies to renovate, and often rebuild, on-base communities.
However, as recently as 2005, the Army admitted that even these homes weren’t up to their own standards. Their report indicated that as many as 75% of its 90,000 homes on military bases nationwide were falling into disrepair.
“As homes deteriorate, the risk of children’s being exposed to hazardous materials…would increase,” the military report noted.
In 2016, a DoD Investigator General report found privatized military family housing to be vulnerable to poor maintenance and management. This left military families at risk for exposure to dangerous materials in run-down homes.
Lead-based paint and other materials are primarily evident in homes built before 1978. Homes that were built using such products are considered safe, so long as they are properly maintained.
The issue arises when those lead-based paints and other materials begin to decay, disintegrate, peel and breakdown. Peeling lead-based paint releases contaminated dust into the air. It can also be easily handled or ingested by curious young children.
According to a 2017 memo from The Villages on Benning, the company managing Fort Benning housing, 2,274 out of 4,001 on-base homes contained lead-based paint.
Effects of Lead Poisoning
Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Peeling paint or other materials are easy for small children to touch or eat out of curiosity.
Symptoms range from immediate to long-term and involve multiple bodily systems.
Children might experience:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Fatigue or sluggishness
- Pica or eating non-food items compulsively
- Developmental delays
- Learning differences
Women who are pregnant can expose their unborn children to lead unknowingly. Infants with lead poisoning are more likely to be born prematurely, have a lower birth weight and to experience slower growth rates compared to typically developing peers.
Adults are not immune to the effects of lead poisoning. While the symptoms are different from infants and children, lead poisoning is no less serious for adults.
Adults with lead poisoning might experience:
- Abdominal pain
- High blood pressure
- Muscle and joint aches
- Mood disorders
- Memory problems
- Low sperm count in men
- Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in women
If you believe that you or your family may have been exposed to lead-based paint or materials in military housing, it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible.
Contact your medical care team, your housing management company and relevant military authorities. The Army issued an updated guidance for military families living on Army posts. You can read it by clicking here.