East Chop Light lead pollution disclosed

As investigation grows after West Chop discovery, even an admiral’s house is suspected of having lead.


Like West Chop Lighthouse, testing has shown the Coast Guard lighthouse on East Chop has lead pollution in its soil. The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the grounds of East Chop Lighthouse were found to harbor lead when last tested in 2008. The lead found there was “above the EPA standard,” according to Petty Officer Nicole Groll. 

Groll was unable to specify what the lead measurements were, nor, she indicated, could she make available documents related to the environmental risk assessment that revealed the lead. Inquiries about that documentation were referred to the Coast Guard’s Washington headquarters, and The Times has requested the information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that can take months.

Two basic EPA standards for lead in soil are 400 milligrams per kilogram for playground areas and 1,200 milligrams per kilogram for bare earth areas, according to Irma Faszewski, quality control director at Schneider Laboratories Global, a Virgina testing laboratory that did some of the analysis on West Chop samples. Those standards, she said, “have been around for a very long time,” and wouldn’t have weakened between 2008 and the present, only strengthened, as several EPA lead standards have.

“It’s been at 400 parts per million for quite some time,” University of Massachusetts Amherst Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Laboratory supervisor Tracy Allen told The Times. Allen said 400 parts per million is equivalent to 400 milligrams per kilogram.

“That’s their limit for what they call ‘Safe Soils’ for [edible] gardening and play areas,” she said. The last time Massachusetts lead in soil regulations were modified was 2014, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Joe Ferson said. At that time it became more protective, and went from 300 parts per million to 200 parts per million. Allen said if she were a parent of a child 6 years old or younger, she would treat soil areas measured in the vicinity of 300 parts per million as a risk. But she added parents should consult with their pediatricians regarding what levels are considered safe. 

The Coast Guard’s revelation that there is lead in the soil came as a surprise to the town of Oak Bluffs and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which both use the property.

“That’s news to us,” museum operations director Katy Fuller said when asked if the museum was aware of lead in the soil there. Fuller said the museum manages the light tower alone, and the town of Oak Bluffs manages the grounds around the tower. Oak Bluffs Highway Superintendent Richard Combra Jr. confirmed that town employees mow the vicinity of the tower. He said the tower is on a 40-foot by 40-foot federal parcel, surrounded by a town park. Asked if he was aware that lead was present in the ground there, Combra said, “I have never heard that,” he said, adding it was only on Thursday he learned of such a situation. 

Oak Bluffs health agent Meegan Lancaster wrote in an email that she was unsure Oak Bluffs had jurisdiction over federal property. Tisbury health agent Maura Valley previously told The Times she had been powerless to intervene at West Chop for jurisdictional reasons, and upon consultation with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, found the state was likewise unable to intercede or empower her to intercede.

The Coast Guard also confirmed that the home of Rear Admiral Andrew J. Tiongson, commander of the First District, is among the 67 Coast Guard residences identified as potentially containing hazardous lead levels. Tiongson lives at Hospital Point Light Station in Beverly, the traditional residence for First District commanders. 

“The admiral’s house is on the list to be tested for lead,” Groll emailed.

Those tests at Tiongson’s home stem from a final action memo that was released in the wake of West Chop Lighthouse lead contamination disclosures. Lead contamination at West Chop caused two children who resided there to be diagnosed with elevated lead levels in their blood — a 4-year-old boy and an 11-month-old girl. The final action memo ordered a nationwide review of Coast Guard housing that may contain contaminants. 

Unlike West Chop, East Chop Lighthouse has no Coast Guard residences onsite. Fuller said there was once a lighthouse keeper’s house, but it was razed long ago. In the case of West Chop, the Coast Guard has maintained that despite high levels of lead in the soil there, the grounds aren’t hazerdous because the grass covering the soil is sufficient to mitigate the risk. This stance appears to be drawn from a 2014 analysis and report done by Rhode Island Analytical. That firm’s report states in part, “As long as covering remains in place, the soil will be considered lead-safe.” By covering, the firm wrote “sufficient grass ground cover.”

Such an assessment appears supported by language on the Soil Science Society of America’s website. 

“Kids and adults are not exposed to lead just by touching lead-contaminated soils,” the site states. “However, they can be exposed to lead by breathing in high-lead dust or eating lead-contaminated soil. Barren, lead-contaminated soil poses a much greater risk than lead-contaminated soil … covered by vegetation. That’s because soil covered by plants will be much harder for kids to get on their fingers. Soil covered by plants is also much less likely to be taken up by the wind and end up as dust in your house. Kids are at greater risk both because they absorb lead much more efficiently than adults, and because they are much more likely to eat soil than adults. Kids are at greater risk for lead exposure in part because they’re more likely to ingest soil. Some kids will eat soil on purpose; this is called pica behavior. Almost all kids will eat soil by accident. Licking ice cream off dirty hands is a classic way that kids ingest soil.” 

For lead-contaminated areas with bare soil, Allen confirmed, there is danger from wind. With dry ground, lead particles can become airborne, she said. 

“If you’ve got airborne dust that is lead-contaminated, you can breathe it in,” she said. 

Allen concurred with the value of grass. With ample grass cover, she said, the risk becomes “minimal.” 

The grounds of East Chop Lighthouse have areas of bare ground, including the path to the lighthouse. The museum conducts tours at the lighthouse, and for a $5 fee, lets folks into the tower to view sunsets. The grounds are described as park by Oak Bluffs Parks and Recreation, which charges between $300 and $1,000 for weddings and events there. The museum also markets the lighthouses for weddings. 

At present, Fuller said, a $198,000 restoration project is underway on the tower with contractor International Chimney Corp. Oak Bluffs financed the work through Community Preservation funds, she said. The work includes replacement of the lantern curtain wall, repairs to the lantern deck and brackets, restoration of the ventilator ball, repairs to stair supports and masonry walls, and restoration of window sashes, according to Fuller.

The Coast Guard did not indicate whether lead was detected in or on the East Chop tower itself. However, at Edgartown Light, an old Coast Guard lighthouse property now owned by the town of Edgartown and leased by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, it did note lead. Groll wrote that “the paint on the exterior of the lighthouse was sufficiently encapsulated or removed so that there was no threat of additional lead paint release at the time of transfer.” The Coast Guard also did environmental testing in the soil there. 

“This assessment determined that lead content of the soil was below EPA limits,” Groll wrote. 

East Chop Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. The Coast Guard maintains the beacon. While there are park benches, the land surrounding the lighthouse does not contain swings, seesaws, or other dedicated children’s play structures. Presently the site is cordoned off due to the work underway by International Chimney Corp.

The Coast Guard cited Centers for Disease Control data that shows about 24 million houses in the United States have elevated levels of lead-contaminated dust, and that more than 4 million of those homes have one or more young children inside them. “Exposure risk increases with concentration and duration of exposure to lead-containing materials,” Groll emailed. “This exposure can be further minimized by observing basic hygiene practices such a[s] frequent hand washing, especially before eating, in order to avoid ingestion. Guests and volunteers at these properties are not at risk of lead poisoning due to the short duration of time spent on the property.” 

Allen said exposure is a “tricky” thing to gauge. Even low-level exposure to kids can be problematic, she said, because exposure has a cumulative effect on them. 

No evidence to date has surfaced that anyone has been poisoned due to lead contamination at East Chop. 

Cash flow appears to have prevented the Coast Guard from cleaning up the leaded soil around East Chop Lighthouse. “The Coast Guard has a planned project to remediate the surrounding soil when funding is available,” Groll wrote.