Get the lead out and release documents

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The U.S. Coast Guard needs to acknowledge its lead problem at the government housing it owns at West Chop Lighthouse. The Coast Guard should also be working to reassure Island residents about other potential sites across the Vineyard where lead paint was used on Coast Guard buildings.

The Times has tried several times to get the Coast Guard to release documents pertaining to its lead investigation. Each time we’ve been denied — the Coast Guard brass in Washington, D.C., telling us that they’ve rejected our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request because of an ongoing investigation.

They’re hoping we’ll go away. We won’t.

What we do know is that there are 474 pages of documents that meet our request — and not one of them has been made available, not even a redacted copy.

This all stems from the families of Chief Robert Parent and Senior Chief Justin Longval being moved out of the housing after two children tested positive for lead, exposed to the toxin while living inside housing provided to them at West Chop Lighthouse.

Valerie Parent, the wife of Robert, released a statement to us detailing how blood tests on two of her children show elevated levels of lead in their system, which was found during routine blood tests. Valerie Parent also tells us that in September 2018, “the Coast Guard informed us that they were aware of extreme levels of lead contamination at the West Chop Lighthouse property for more than a decade prior to us moving into the residence.”

It is unthinkably disturbing that the Coast Guard would put its loyal personnel and their families in danger with knowledge that lead was already a problem.

We applaud Valerie Parent for speaking out, and hope the Coast Guard, as she put it, “will do the right thing” and provide her family with assistance and closure.

The Coast Guard should, indeed, do the right thing, and one of the steps they should take is to be more transparent. Certainly within 474 pages of documents there are some that wouldn’t jeopardize their investigation. Let’s face it, we’re not talking about a criminal investigation where the release of evidence could jeopardize the case. We’re talking about an investigation that may shed some light on how this federal agency overlooked information it had about lead paint use in these homes and put some of its employees at risk.

We’ve also heard from Seamond Roberts, whose family lived in one of the houses when she was a child and her father was the civilian lighthouse keeper for West Chop. Roberts told tales of playing in the paint chips that were scraped from the buildings, as well as about the practice of dumping the excess paint into the ground.

Roberts apologized for her father and others involved in dumping lead paint, which is more than the Coast Guard has done. She says her father and others didn’t know better at the time.

We do now.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 4 million households have children who have been exposed to lead. The CDC website states that no safe level of lead has been identified: “Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized.” Low levels of lead exposure have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement, according to the CDC.

The Massachusetts lead paint law requires the removal or covering of lead paint in any home built before 1978 where children under 6 live. It puts the onus on property owners, in this case the federal government, to comply with the law.

These aren’t new laws. Lead paint was banned in Massachusetts in 1978, and new regulations have been adopted through the years to prevent exposure, especially among children. A parent shouldn’t have to worry about her child being exposed to lead in government housing, some 40 years after lead paint was banned.

It’s time that the Coast Guard comes clean, apologizes to these families, and makes it clear that they will provide whatever support is needed to help them overcome this exposure.