O.B. officials discount lighthouse danger

Health board members don’t think kids eat lead paint or lead-tainted soil.

The Oak Bluffs board of health appears unconcerned about the lead paint threats at East Chop Lighthouse. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated March 10

At a Feb. 23 Zoom meeting, the Oak Bluffs board of health and the town health agent showed lack of concern about high lead levels in the soil around East Chop Lighthouse, and expressed views about the ways children can become poisoned by lead paint that contradict leading health and environmental organizations. As The Times previously reported, prior testing has shown that lead levels in the soils around the lighthouse were found to be “significantly” above EPA standards. The lighthouse and a small plot it sits on are federal property, surrounded by an Oak Bluffs park. 

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a leasehold agreement (technically a license agreement) with the Coast Guard for use of the lighthouse, which is a popular tourist attraction. In addition to its use as a public park, the town of Oak Bluffs rents the area surrounding the lighthouse as a venue for weddings. However, construction fencing that cordoned the area off during 2019 restoration work on the lighthouse was never taken down, and the gate to the picket fence beyond that fencing was screwed shut after The Times reported on lead contamination at the site. That changed when the Coast Guard secured the services of Renova Environmental Services for an $81,640 testing job geared toward providing a clearer picture of where lead is in the soils. The picket gate was opened, and a hole was cut in the construction fencing. There’s no signage to deter folks from entering the area.

Based on questions previously posed by The Times, Oak Bluffs health agent Meegan Lancaster brought up the subject of signage to the health board on Feb. 23. She discounted the need for posting warning signs that would indicate a lead hazard was present. 

“I don’t see really the purpose of that really,” she said, “because it is in the soil, and you know we don’t really conclusively [know] what’s going on up there, so I just wanted to bring it to your attention, just in case you’re asked questions about it.”

Though the lighthouse and the surrounding park have been visited by people of all ages, including children, at least one health board member wasn’t open to the possibility children might eat soil there. “No, children do not eat dirt,” Tom Zinno said.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control website, some children do eat dirt, and if it has lead in it, they can become poisoned that way. Other children can simply intake lead from putting hands contaminated from lead-laden soil in their mouth. The CDC website lists the following:

  • Children can be exposed to lead in soil by touching, breathing, or playing in lead-contaminated soil.
  • Lead-contaminated soil particles can also be brought inside as lead dust or on shoes, clothing, or pets.
  • Young children tend to put their hands, which may be contaminated with lead dust from soil, into their mouths.
  • Some young children eat soil (this is called pica). Children may also be exposed by eating fruits and vegetables grown in or near lead-contaminated soil.


The website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also outlines the dangers of lead ingestion through soil. “Babies and young children can also be more highly exposed to lead because they often put their hands and other objects that can have lead from dust or soil on them into their mouths,” the site states. 

Health board member James Butterick added to Zinno’s assertion by immediately saying, “Or peeling paint.” The comment appeared to play directly off Zinno’s words, and assert children don’t eat peeling paint. The comment is contradictory to information posted by a major Massachusetts hospital and the CDC. 

The website of Boston’s Children’s Hospital states, “Children can get lead in their bodies by breathing or swallowing lead dust, or by eating soil or paint chips with lead in them.”

The University of Rochester Medical Center website states, “Lead paint has a sweet taste, which encourages children to put paint chips in their mouths and chew on surfaces like windowsills that may contain lead paint.” 

The Centers for Disease Control lead glossary describes the act of eating things like soil or paint chips as pica behavior: “Pica (PY kah): Eating things that are not food, like dirt, clay, or paint chips. Example: Pica can be dangerous for children because they may swallow lead.” 

In an email to The Times after the story appeared online, Zinno wrote that his and Butterick’s comments were misinterpreted. “I commend you for following up on the lead contamination in the East Chop Lighthouse and the surrounding soils, and bringing the lack of signage to the board’s attention. We members of the Oak Bluffs board of health are well aware of the issues and dangers of children ingesting lead from flaking paint chips, dust from friction, and soils … and yes, I probably was one of those kids who ate dirt,” he wrote. “What you witnessed on the video from our Zoom meeting was me making a joke (sarcasm), which I tend to do before a serious discussion about the many extremely serious topics we deal with on a regular basis at the board of health. If you watch the video closely, you will see the smirk on my face and the smile on Dr. Butterick’s face before we start our serious discussion of the topic. Please bring any further public health concern to our board. My personal lesson from this is to be more aware of my words on Zoom, and how they can be misinterpreted.”

In a statement to The Times on Wednesday, Katy Fuller, Martha’s Vineyard Museum director of operations and business development wrote, “Museum leadership takes the issue of lead contamination very seriously, and is not prepared to open the lighthouse for tours or make it available for private rentals until the lead has been mitigated across the entire property, both for the safety of visitors and our lighthouse keeper.”

She added that museum leadership declined comment on the subject of signage. 

The lead at the lighthouse soils is believed to have come from the process of scraping and painting the structure. No reports have surfaced that suggest the lighthouse suffers from peeling paint presently. The current lead problem, according to Coast Guard reports, is in the soil. Other structures at the site, now gone, were likely coated in lead paint.

“There absolutely was a keeper’s house there until the light was automated in the ’20s,” Martha’s Vineyard Museum historian and research librarian Bow Van Riper said. Van Riper also believes there was a shed for storing oil or kerosene. 

These structures could have left lead paint deposits in the soil farther out from the lighthouse than the Coast Guard intends on testing. The Renova Environmental testing was limited to the 60-foot by 60-foot federal plot the lighthouse sits on, and not the surrounding park. One exception to that was the entrance walkway, which was tested. 

The health board took no action on the subject of signage or anything else related to the lighthouse and did not indicate when they might revisit the subject.

Renova Environmental is done for now, according to the Coast Guard. “The contracting company has completed testing and gathered their samples from the East Chop Lighthouse grounds,” Petty Officer Amanda Wyrick emailed The Times. “They are currently compiling the final report, which we expect to have in April.”

Lancaster told her board she learned a drill rig wasn’t going to be needed at the lighthouse. Depending on how deep soil lead was at the site, Ronova had been prepared to use a drilling apparatus to take samples. 

Petty Officer Wyrick later confirmed that a drill rig or “geo probe” wouldn’t be needed. 

Butterick and Lancaster couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on remarks made at the Feb. 23 meeting. 

Updated to include a comment from Zinno.


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