Inspectors told an Army spouse the lead level in her home isn’t a risk. She’s not convinced.
By SCOTT WYLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2018
NAPLES, Italy — Jessica Alaniz had planned to test the water at her rented home in Naples for lead when a friend suggested she test the paint as well.
Alaniz, an Army spouse and a mother of three children, found lead throughout the home using a test kit she bought online.
Lead exposure can cause neurological damage, hypertension, anemia, kidney problems and impaired reproduction, according to the National Institutes of Health. Children are especially vulnerable.
The landlord conducted further tests that confirmed the presence of lead, but at levels within U.S. consumer safety laws. Still, the NIH and other health agencies say no amount of lead exposure can be considered safe.
Alaniz said the landlord told her the lead might be in the plaster or structure and not the paint itself.
“Lead is lead, and [the test] is positive,” Alaniz said. “There are cracks and crumbling door frames and window frames all over this house to expose that lead, whether it’s in the paint or not.”
Alaniz’s discovery raises questions about how widespread lead contaminants are in the dwellings that servicemembers rent near U.S. installations here, which include the Navy’s 6th Fleet headquarters.
Italy banned lead-based paint for residential use in 1961 — 17 years before the U.S. imposed a similar ban — but has never enacted legal limits for lead residue in dwellings, which is why Navy officials use U.S. standards.
Homes built before bans were imposed, such as those prevalent in Italy, are more likely to have an underlayer of the toxic paint, according to the World Health Organization.
Italian law requires homeowners to seal residual lead paint with nonlead paint, but neither the Italian government nor the U.S. military inspects off-base dwellings for lead paint.
The water also tested positive for lead contamination, Alaniz said. The Navy has tried to address local water pollution, but the lead reading shows that families must take extra steps to safeguard themselves, she said.
The Navy requires landlords who lease to military families to supply four liters of bottled water daily to households as a precaution for the groundwater contamination that occurred during the local Mafia’s well-documented toxic-waste dumping in the region.
Still, Alaniz said she avoids using tap water for cooking and rinsing produce. She monitors her daughters’ baths to ensure they don’t swallow their bathwater and insists family members brush their teeth with bottled water.
However, the paint has become a bigger concern. A leaky roof made the paint crack and peel in places, causing Alaniz to worry that lead-paint chips would pose even greater health risks to her children.
The lead paint required housing officials to do research, Alaniz said, because no military tenant in Naples had brought those concerns to their attention.
Housing authorities spoke to the landlord, who agreed to hire a technician to collect paint samples, a laboratory to test them and a certified engineer to review the results, said Lt. Pete Pagano, Naples base command spokesman.
Lab tests showed the samples contained between 1 part per million and 8 parts per million of lead — levels that fall well below the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s threshold of 90 parts per million for paint.
“All parties involved were able to ensure no safety or health hazards existed in the home,” Pagano said.
Alaniz had blood tests done on her two youngest daughters, Audrianna, 2, and Jizelle, 4, at the base hospital. The results came back negative for lead.
“I am extremely relieved and thankful,” Alaniz said. “However, I still do not believe there is no health hazard in this home as lead is present, regardless of the amount. Two more years is a long time to be in a home with lead.”
Chipping paint concerns
Alaniz asked housing officials whether the cracked, chipping paint increased the lead hazards, and she said they told her no.
A pediatrician disagrees.
“Any child living in a home with lead-based paint, especially if it is peeling and chipping, is at risk for an elevated blood lead level at any time,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health in Illinois.
The health risk depends on whether the children are breathing in the dust and eating the chips, Lowry said.
Increased lead levels in the blood can last for weeks, but one blood test won’t reveal whether the child had heightened levels in the past or whether lead is accumulating in the body, Lowry said. “The blood lead test is only a snapshot in time,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that lead in a child’s system should not exceed 5 parts per billion, Lowry said.
However, Lowry reiterated that no amount is deemed safe. Some children who have lead levels of 5 ppb to 10 ppb have shown impaired learning and attention deficits, she added.
Lead-based paint must be sealed to be safe, and ideally it should be removed, Lowry said.
The Navy doesn’t plan to include lead-paint tests in future safety inspections of Italian dwellings that servicemembers intend to lease, Pagano said. Inspectors already look for water leaks, cracks and chipping paint, he said.
False sense of security
Italy’s ban on lead paint combined with its requirement to seal leftover layers of lead paint make base housing officials comfortable with servicemembers living in off-base rentals, Pagano said.
“It is highly unlikely that homes out on the (Italian) economy contain lead-based paint,” Pagano said. “If residents have reason to believe there is any issue with their home, they should contact their landlord to have it fixed.”
Housing officials will assist in answering questions and communicating with a landlord to resolve a problem, he added.
Alaniz said her landlord repaired her roof, but it’s leaking again. He has yet to fix the water damage and cracked walls.
She plans to move with her children back to the States in mid-June while her husband finishes his Naples tour of duty. She based her decision on many factors, but her children’s health was the main one.
Anyone who lives off base should test their homes for lead and not assume the military has already taken care of everything, Alaniz said.
“Don’t have that false sense of security,” she said.