Children in U.S. Army housing were found to have elevated levels of lead in their systems, prompting calls from lawmakers on Capitol Hill for immediate measures to fix the problem, which has been found to cause severe developmental problems.
In a letter sent Friday to Army Secretary Mark Esper, four U.S. senators cited a Reuters report published Thursday that found more than 1,000 young children tested between 2011 and 2016 at military bases had disconcerting levels of lead in their systems. The letter was signed by Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, along with Georgia senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson.
“We write to you today concerned about recent reports of lead poisoning at a number of Army installations,” the senators wrote. “The health and safety of our servicemembers and their families are of the utmost importance.”
The Reuters report specifically singled out lead poisoning prevalent in on-base housing at a number of military bases. Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Polk in Louisiana, and Fort Knox in Kentucky were named, as well as Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, both in Texas.
According to the report, several bases also failed to inform state health departments about their findings after testing the children. Such moves are in violation of state laws and considered a serious public health risk.
Reuters found that Georgia’s Fort Benning, represented by Senators Purdue and Isakson, has at least five homes containing hazardous amounts of lead. A separate 2015 Defense Department’s Inspector General report found lead hazards at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, drawing the attention of Kaine and Warner, who referenced that earlier report in Friday’s letter.
The senators requested that the army set up a meeting with lawmakers to address the issues.
“We ask that you provide our offices with a detailed briefing as soon as possible outlining the immediate and long-term mitigation strategy to keep military families safe, provide medical treatment for those potentially or previously affected, make long-lasting repairs, and finally, provide legislative proposals or guidance on legislation needed to hold maintenance contractors accountable,” they wrote.
In a statement to Reuters, Army spokesperson Colonel Kathleen Turner emphasized the institution’s commitment to soldiers, but failed to specifically address the lead problem.
“The Army’s most valuable asset is its soldiers and their families, and we honor the sacrifices they make to serve our nation,” said Turner. “We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment on all of our installations, and to providing the highest quality of care to our service members, their families and all those entrusted to our care.”
Reuters noted in its initial report that most family housing on U.S. military bases is not actually owned and operated by the Army. Instead, private partnerships often manage the housing. Companies charged with maintaining homes for servicemembers can be lax in assessing hazards like peeling paint containing lead, something that can severely harm developing young children.
One active servicemember, Army Colonel J. Cale Brown, wrote to the Army Office of the Inspector General describing the impact of lead poisoning on his young son, JC, who has spent eight years undergoing costly medical treatment. JC was exposed to lead while his father was stationed at Fort Benning and the Browns lived in a home operated by Villages of Benning, which is a private partnership between two companies and the Army.
“There is no acceptable number of children that the Army can allow to be so egregiously hurt,” Brown wrote. He told Reuters he had not received a response to his letter.
Servicemembers aren’t the only people at risk on military bases. A number of bases contain Superfund sites, or designated areas flagged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for clean-up due to the outsized dangers they pose to both the environment and human health. One of those designated areas, Fort Bliss in Texas, is set to hold a number of detained immigrants, including young children.