No joking matter


We’d like to remind you lead is highly poisonous. There’s no such thing as a safe exposure level to it. For kids, lead is particularly harmful, stunting the brain in ways often difficult to initially detect. It doesn’t take much to deal out such damage.

With that in mind, we are at best puzzled by the behavior of members of the Oak Bluffs board of health and the town’s health agent in a Feb. 23 meeting. During their discussion about East Chop Light, folks at the meeting understood lead paint contaminates the grounds there. By grounds, we mean at least the 60-foot by 60-foot federal plot of land the lighthouse sits on. Two Coast Guard studies have found lead in the soil there. A third study was recently completed. Results are expected next month. Did we happen to mention lead doesn’t biodegrade? Lead can remain in the soil indefinitely. This makes it likely the lead found in the lighthouse soils in 2003 and 2007 will be detected again this year. Telegraph Hill Park, which is owned by Oak Bluffs, surrounds the lighthouse plot. While similar tests of Telegraph Hill Park haven’t surfaced, and it’s unclear to what degree, if any, lead is in the soil there, anyone who wishes to access the park enters on a path that leads directly to the lighthouse. It’s probable those who enter will cross some portion of the contaminated federal plot. Did we mention soil lead can cling to shoes? Yes, it can be tracked around just like any other type of dirt — tracked back into your car, back into your home or school. Have we neglected to mention soil lead can be picked by the wind, kicked up through foot traffic, and inhaled?

We evoke Larry Vaughn, the fictitious mayor of Amity, who resisted posting the beaches (and closing them), despite evidence of danger. Oak Bluffs health agent Meegan Lancaster exhibited Vaughn-style risk management when she told her board she didn’t see the purpose of posting warning signs outside Telegraph Hill Park. And in saying, “We don’t really conclusively [know] what’s going on up there” as further justification for not posting, she ignores prior test results in close proximity, and casts herself as someone who has lost track of her priorities (matters of public health). Concerning a suggestion made by Lancaster’s colleague, we argue peeling paint isn’t an issue at the lighthouse. Rather, it’s years upon years of chipping and scraping and repainting the structure in the era of lead paint that has polluted the ground. Nevertheless, it doesn’t behoove a health board member to claim kids don’t eat peeling paint, even if said in jest. 

Such a claim was made by health board member Jim Butterick, who is a physician. Public remarks matter. Pica behavior that can have devastating consequences shouldn’t be reduced to morbid humor by, of all people, a medical doctor on a health board. Dr. Butterick also mischaracterized test results from the Coast Guard’s 2007 study by stating samples taken farther from the lighthouse — six feet, as opposed to four feet away — did “not at all” yield “elevated” results. That is not the case. Those test results, which are bundled into the Coast Guard’s 220-page report on East Chop Light, clearly show some results taken at a six-foot distance are above two standard EPA thresholds. 

More to the point, it’s irrelevant to any kid who bikes over to the park to play Wiffle ball with his friends, irrelevant to any kid who plays at his parent’s feet while they watch folks tie the knot (it’s a popular wedding venue), what the commonwealth or Uncle Sam have classified the lead-tainted patch of earth they’re getting themselves dirty in. 

In a similar vein, we’re disappointed health agent Lancaster suggested West Chop in Vineyard Haven was somehow a different scenario because people lived there. Yes, there was a 10,000-parts-per-million concentration found there (essentially signifying part of the ground was 1 percent lead). Yes, to the horror of their parents, lead crept into the blood of a 4-year-old boy and 11-month-old girl. Yes, the whole place is owned by the Coast Guard. Matters of jurisdiction aside, the key point is kids played on ground known to be polluted, and nobody told the parents the pollution was there. Pollution is known to be at East Chop Light. The town knows this. We believe instead of dithering, the town should post the area so it’s clear to all. And it should bar the picket gate to the area until a thorough remediation is done. 

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which rents the lighthouse from the Coast Guard, has closed it to visitors. The Oak Bluffs Parks and Recreation Commission has closed Telegraph Hill Park. No sign is up to show either the lighthouse or the park is closed. Until the area is remediated, signs should go up. Lastly, to health board member Tom Zinno, who told his colleagues, “No, children do not eat dirt,” and later said the remark was sarcasm, we remind him kids do ingest dirt, and can be poisoned by it when it harbors lead. At no point in the meeting did he make it clear he was joking. We don’t find this funny, nor should the citizens of Oak Bluffs. Something else that’s no laughing matter is the portion of the Coast Guard’s report that states an oil house and keeper’s dwelling once stood adjacent to the lighthouse. Undoubtedly these were scraped and painted too. We find it foolish not to consider the possibility these structures may have tainted the park.

While it would be responsible of the museum and the parks and recreation commission to affix signs that indicate the lighthouse and park are closed, neither entity is charged with protecting public health. That’s the job of the board of health. That board knows part of the area is tainted with a toxic heavy metal, and another part has the potential to be. The board of health needs to adhere to its fundamental purpose and alert the public to a health threat. The simple act of posting signs will go a long way toward doing this. 


  1. I applaud the MV Times in their reporting of this grave health crisis, the lead poisoning of our soil, in several towns.
    This is exactly the matters of public interest our community newspaper should be reporting on.
    So when the same public officials in Oak Bluffs, the town which hosts and oversaw the creation of the newest “Superfund Site” at East Chop writes a Letter to the Editor (March 23, 2021, Defending OB Health Agent) defending their own negligent performance, it can only be seen as an appalling outburst.
    The MV Times correctly pointed out public health IS their sworn duty.
    Every citizen in the US has had to labor in their daily lives under the threat of Covid.
    Now the OB BOH wants to issue it’s own self serving, congratulatory pat on the back.
    Reminds me of that other notorious job performance assessment, “You are doing a heck of a job, Brownie!”

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