Lessons learned from toxic armories

You might already think of an armory as no place for a child. But these buildings—where the National Guard trains—are also community spaces, rented for baby showers, baptisms, birthday parties and weddings.

Here’s the problem: because indoor firing ranges release neurotoxic lead in dust form, these buildings post a serious risk to community health—especially the health of children.

Here are just a few of the facts investigative reporter Rob Davis and The Oregonian discovered:

  • Children, who are especially vulnerable to any exposure to lead, routinely gathered in 200 armories across the United States for everything from wrestling meets to Cub Scout meetings.
  • In the last decade, inspectors discovered lead dust spread throughout 36 of the 37 armories they checked in Oregon.
  • After examining the McMinnville armory in 2009, inspectors urged tighter controls “to prevent a catastrophic injury.”
  • Oregon National Guard officials considered keeping the public out of their contaminated armories years ago, but they never took action.
  • Oregon estimates that closing and cleaning up indoor gun ranges will cost $21.6 million—and then must be continually re-checked to ensure lead does not re-emerge.

Here at OEC, we hope that this remarkable investigative report will encourage decision-makers in Oregon to take a fresh look at our state’s approach to environmental health:

Be proactive about healthy spaces for children:

Lead dust is a tragic problem: persistent, difficult to clean up, and toxic to children at any level of exposure. But lead is not the only environmental hazard. Day cares, schools, and community buildings can take action to ensure that children are not put at risk from air quality issues, toxic cleaning supplies, pesticides and radon. The eco-healthy child care checklist is a good place for teachers and caregivers to start. Oregon will consider legislation for healthy school environments in the coming year.

Invest in environmental health:

We know that lead in plumbing or paint, old diesel engines in school buses, and indoor air quality hazards cost money to solve. But the cost doesn’t simply disappear if we ignore it: instead, we pay for these persistent public health hazards in lost productivity and health care bills. Investing in healthy spaces, especially for children when they are most vulnerable to harm, is a cost-effective choice. In the next legislative session, OEC will support a bill to jump-start the clean-up of old diesel engines with a focus on our most vulnerable communities.

Prevent the next toxic legacy:

Lead is not the only toxic pollutant introduced through human activities. Part of the challenge is to ensure that consumer products, especially children’s products, are safe before they are introduced into our homes and communities. That’s why OEC helped secure the passage of Oregon’s Toxic Free Kids Act. Now, we are working to ensure that the law is put in place with strong rules that hold manufacturers accountable for removing chemicals of concern to health from their children’s products. This is one example of Oregon taking up responsibility to be pro-active about protecting children’s health; but there’s more to be done.

Kudos to the Oregonian for their environmental health investigative reporting! Rob Davis and the Oregonian spent 18 months researching long-standing negligence that put the health of thousands of children at risk. The good news is that, since the story was released this month, the National Guard has halted public events at toxic armories. By February, they will end the use of all indoor firing ranges. Federal dollars have been pledged for clean-up. Now, it is up to states like Oregon to ensure that the Federal dollars are secured and put to use.

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