No laughing matter

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To the Editor:

I read with chagrin the March 18 editorial chastising our Oak Bluffs board of health, and in particular two members of the board — one being me — as taking the matter of lead pollution in the grounds around the East Chop Lighthouse as trivial and a joke. I have listened to the recording, and yes, what I said I own. But it was a lighthearted moment in a year of otherwise sometimes deadly serious discussions about what we needed to do to address the pandemic. 

All of us involved with the board of health take our responsibilities seriously. You don’t have to be a healthcare professional to know that heavy metals are not good for human beings, and lead in particular is especially dangerous for children. We all know of the situation at the West Chop lightkeeper’s house, where a family was sickened by lead. People can be exposed to and sickened by lead by ingestion or breathing, as your editorial writer notes. It’s why lead has been banned in paints for over 40 years, but there’s still lots of lead paint under other layers of paint in all kinds of places — houses, furniture, and yes, lighthouses. 

The East Chop Lighthouse dates to the late 19th century. It’s more than 100 years old. It must have had multiple layers of lead paint applied over the decades. There were other buildings on the site, a lighthouse keeper’s house and a storage building for oil. The keeper’s house was demolished in 1934, and most of the property taken over by the town of Oak Bluffs in 1954, except for a 60-foot by 60-foot piece of land on which the lighthouse currently sits. 

If one listens to the rest of that Feb. 23 board of health meeting, you will hear surprise from the board members and town health agent for this lead issue surfacing at this time. The study was done in 2007, and reported in 2008. Why has it taken so long for this to surface? Our longest-serving board member, for more than a decade, does not recall any discussion about this in all of his years on the board. The matter was again discussed at our March 23 meeting, and our incredulity remains. This is no laughing matter. The samples done in 2007 show the highest concentration of lead within a few feet of the lighthouse, which is no surprise. The lead either leeches or chips off or is sanded off in preparation for fresh painting, most of which was likely done with lead paint prior to 1978. A small distance farther out, the lead concentrations drop to below or close to the EPA levels, except one — to the south and east of the lighthouse, where the keeper’s house once stood. It would be a reasonable guess that if more testing is done, additional high concentrations of lead will be found. But then what to do? The town has never maintained the lighthouse. Any lead found would be from Coast Guard maintenance over the years, but if identified now, who will have to pay for mitigation? 

The site needs to be closed until further evaluation is done and a course of remediation determined. The Oak Bluffs board of health, along with others, will continue to monitor the situation and intervene if needed. Because of the ubiquity of lead in so many settings, the EPA has quite specific regulations on how to mitigate lead pollution, with significant differences between interior and exterior spaces, and soil pollution, for which many options are available. 

Your editorial writers elected to invoke the memory of “Jaws,” and so I close by suggesting that there is still something lurking out there, but it’s an enemy more dangerous than a single aggressive shark. It’s a minuscule particle called COVID, and it’s affected at least a thousand Islanders in the past year. Many have been sickened. Across the nation, more than 500,000 have succumbed. We have a mini-surge going on right now on the Island. Like staying out of the ocean when the rogue great white shark was in Vineyard waters, we must continue to be vigilant and careful when we are out in public. We must continue to wear masks, social distance, and wash our hands. This new danger is not gone; it’s still here just waiting for us to drop our guard. And that’s also no laughing matter. 

Jim Butterick
Oak Bluffs