By Andrea Januta and Joshua Schneyer
FORT BENNING, Georgia (Reuters) - Inside the gates of the U.S. Army's Fort Benning, the din of power tools blared this week. Maintenance workers wearing respirators were busy removing old and potentially toxic paint from homes. Plastic tarps surrounded cordoned-off housing, with signs reading, "CAUTION POISON" and "LEAD HAZARD AREA."
The activity is part of a larger effort, on Army posts around the world, to respond to residents' lead poisoning concerns after a Reuters report last month uncovered lead hazards lurking on U.S. bases https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-military-housing.
The article documented the risks of lead-based paint exposure in older and mostly privatized Army housing across several states, and found that more than 1,050 small children tested high for lead on U.S. bases in recent years. Army clinics often were failing to report high test results to state health authorities as required.
The report prompted a call for action by members of the U.S. Congress. Some 700,000 Americans, including approximately 100,000 small children, live in family housing on military posts across the United States.
Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters the Army's duty to provide safe housing to military families was a "moral obligation." Within a week, the Army drafted plans to test 40,000 older homes https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-cleanup-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-army-forms-plan-to-test-40000-homes-for-lead-following-reuters-report-idUSKCN1LC1ZH?sp=123 for lead, and to remove families from homes when necessary. The inspection efforts could cost as much as $386 million, Reuters reported last month.
"We have developed and are executing enhanced protocols for screening the interiors of homes, sampling potable tap water, and testing soil samples to identify, mitigate and correct potential hazards," Army spokeswoman Colonel Kathleen Turner wrote in a statement Wednesday.
All Army installations worldwide with family housing are conducting town hall meetings to address residents' concerns, she said.
A visit to Fort Benning shows the broad response underway. At several old homes, signs have been posted saying, "New windows coming soon." Old lead paint sloughing from window areas can be hazardous to children.
Some families have been moved, and others residing in older homes are having their drinking water tested. Fort Benning's clinic has been holding walk-in lead testing to accommodate a rush of children being screened.
Villages of Benning, the public-private consortium that manages the Georgia base's family housing, is planning to certify 60 additional staff to respond to lead-based paint concerns before next month, a six-fold increase, according to Army documents reviewed by Reuters. Earlier, Reuters tested five Benning homes and found lead paint hazards in all of them.
When properly maintained, old lead paint isn't considered dangerous, but when it deteriorates it becomes a hazard.
At Fort Benning, some residents aren't waiting for the Army. On a private Facebook group where families discuss military housing concerns, residents are posting photos of store-bought consumer lead-testing swabs and sharing results.
QUICKER FIXES, NEW CONCERNS
One resident, Stephanie Campbell, told Reuters she had reported lead hazards when she moved into her historic home over a year ago. Her first lead-related maintenance requests took months to resolve, she said. But another request she made last month was addressed within weeks.
"They are being more responsive," said Campbell, who lives on base with her husband and year-old daughter.
Four neighbors on her street have recently been moved out of their homes or have moves scheduled, she said, pending lead remediation activities.
A new worry has emerged: lead in the drinking water at some homes. Campbell decided to get her water checked and scheduled testing with Columbus Water Works, the region's public utility company, which offers the service free of charge. Her results, reviewed by Reuters, indicated multiple taps with lead levels above the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency recommends action, 15 parts per billion.
Columbus Water Works has seen a spike in lead testing requests from Benning residents, said Vic Burchfield, a senior vice president at the Georgia utility. At least 34 Benning families have asked for testing. Of 15 homes tested so far, six had at least one tap with lead above the safety action level. Screening detected lead at lower levels in four others.
The utility plans to replace water service lines for the 10 homes where testing detected lead so far, Burchfield said, "out of an abundance of caution." He added that the company believes the service lines - the pipes linking homes to main water lines - are safe from lead, and that the toxin is likely leeching from indoor plumbing or fixtures.
A Benning town hall forum is scheduled for Friday. At other such meetings this week, on posts including Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Army public health personnel sought to reassure residents that the risks of lead poisoning are usually low on Army installations, and the rate of children who test high for the toxin is often below that found in civilian communities.
In Congress, two amendments to the 2019 defence funding bill, sponsored by Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson and Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, would mandate a federal review of lead paint in all military housing and set aside funding for lead blood testing of military children. The amendments passed the Senate in August.
(Editing by Ronnie Greene)