Residents are asking the state health department to investigate lead contamination in the community neighboring the range. 

Fish and dust samples taken near the Marine Corps’ Puuloa Range Training Facility in Ewa Beach tested positive for lead last year, according to a lab report a Hawaii state lawmaker commissioned and then declined to release because she believes the results are inconclusive. 

The meaning of those results, which were obtained by community members, is a matter of debate, even among experts. Unanswered questions include how much of a threat, if any, the lead may pose to the community and where exactly it’s coming from.

Some, including the lawmaker and state health department, have dismissed the findings as inconclusive while residents say they’re a starting point to launch a broader investigation.

U.S. Marines and civilian employees of Marine Corps Base Hawaii meet with personnel from the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) at Pu’uloa Range Training Facility, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Oct. 27, 2022. The purpose of the visit was to begin a cooperative process between the DOH and MCBH toward analyzing conditions along the PRTF boundary, where state and federal jurisdictions meet. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Faffler)
The state health department has approved a plan for the Marines to test only where their facility meets the shoreline. Health officials have not agreed to do their own testing in the community. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/2022)

Four reef fish contained the toxic metal at levels ranging from 644 to 7,320 parts per billion. While there is no state or national safety threshold for lead levels in fish, the results far exceed the amounts the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends for food eaten by young children, which range from 10 to 20 parts per billion. 

Two dust samples, taken from the louvers of two homes near Puuloa, exceeded state and federal limits for lead in soil. By that standard, the results, in excess of 200 parts per million, mean young children and pregnant women should avoid contact. 

Katarzyna Kordas, a University of Buffalo environmental epidemiologist who has studied lead exposure, said the results could indicate a danger to young children and pregnant women.

“I would be concerned about potential toxicity,” she said.

Kordas and other lead experts who reviewed the results at Civil Beat’s request cautioned that broad conclusions should not be drawn based on testing only six samples. And the results do not necessarily demonstrate a link to the shooting range, they said.

More rigorous testing would be needed to show whether the results are representative of the Ewa Beach community near the range and whether the people and environment closest to the range have higher lead levels than those farther away, according to the experts.

One expert also raised questions about whether fish represent a reliable test sample given their transience and the fact that they are known to accumulate heavy metals.

“If we’re using this as hypothesis-generating, the next steps would definitely be: Let’s sample more and see,” said Harriet Okatch, an assistant public health professor at Thomas Jefferson University and co-chair of Pennsylvania’s Lead Free Promise Project.

House of Representatives education committee member Rose Martinez returns to a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in Honolulu.(Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Rep. Rose Martinez said she doesn’t consider the testing valid given the small sample size. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

The testing was ordered by Rep. Rose Martinez, who was responding to community concerns about the shooting range’s impact on its neighbors. It follows testing by the Surfrider Foundation in 2022 that found high lead levels where Puuloa’s shooting berms meet the beach.

But once the results came in, her office refused to share them with the community or Civil Beat. Instead, Martinez endorsed a Marine-proposed testing plan. Residents are not satisfied with that plan because it involves sampling only a sliver of the range property. 

Community members obtained the lab report from Maj. Jeff Hart, a Marine Corps environmental official who agreed with residents that the results should be public. That lead was found in all six samples is causing community unease.

There is no level of lead considered safe in the blood of children, and those who are exposed have been found to suffer from lower IQ, developmental delays and problems with behavior, hearing and speech.

Ewa Beach neighborhood board members Liam Chinn, from left, and Alex Gaos are photographed at Puuloa Beach Park Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in Ewa Beach. The public beach park and civilian homes border the military’s Puuloa Range Training Facility. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Ewa Beach neighborhood board members Liam Chinn, left, and Alex Gaos, are concerned that lead from Puuloa may be drifting into the community and eroding into the ocean. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

“I’ve been feeding these fish to my family and friends, at what cost?” said Alex Gaos, an Ewa Beach Neighborhood Board member who spearfished the samples for Martinez’s office. 

“I’m almost 50 and not too concerned for myself at this point, but I am concerned for my son, who is only 15 years old and has been eating this fish since he was a young child.” 

From Martinez’s perspective, the results’ lack of “conclusiveness” are enough to disregard them. In an emailed statement, she said the testing “is not representative of a comprehensive test, which the community needs and deserves.”

“It was brought to our attention that the results were deemed isolated and cannot be considered valid,” she said.

The representative said she withheld the lab report because “releasing inconclusive results would be a disservice and pose a risk to the community.” In her statement, she reiterated her support for the Marine Corps’ testing plan.

“This action by the Marine Corps Base Hawaii is a positive development for our community, as it demonstrates their commitment to addressing our Ewa community’s longstanding concerns,” she said.

Liam Chinn, another Ewa Beach Neighborhood Board member, said he finds it disturbing that the representative isn’t calling for expanded testing of the community’s homes and food sources.

“Whether the results are conclusive or inconclusive, all roads point to the same conclusion which is that we’ve got to do further testing,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is about the health and safety of the community and the children that play in this area every day.” 

What Do The Results Show?

The lead concentration in the fish samples are between two and 24 times over the limit of international standards.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recommends no more than 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of lead in fish, according to standards first adopted in 1995 and amended last year. The local samples range from 0.644 to 7.32 mg/kg. 

The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations says food eaten by children should not contain more than 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of lead. (Graphic: April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2024)

However, federal regulatory agencies in the United States have no such standards.

The FDA only last year proposed draft guidance for food intended to be eaten by babies and children under 2. The proposed limits for fruits, vegetables and “single-ingredient meats” are 10 parts per billion. Fish is not listed in the FDA guidance.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says food eaten by children, including fruits, veggies and meat, should not contain more than 20 parts per billion of lead. (Graphic: April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2024)

The levels provide no indication of the source, particularly because fish are transient, said Diana Ceballos, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

“Fish is the worst food you can sample for lead because they accumulate heavy metals,” she said. “We don’t know where that heavy metal comes from.”

The dangers of eating contaminated fish depend on who is eating it, in what quantities and how often, Kordas said.

Fish samples were taken from the ocean in front of the Puuloa shooting range. Dust samples were taken from the window louvers of homes about 500 feet from the range. (Google maps, labels added by Alex Gaos)

“You’re looking at three different variables that define the level of risk,” she said.

In general, children consume small amounts of food, she said. So their overall exposure might be low, especially if fish wasn’t a big part of their diet.

More frequent ingestion of a contaminant could lead to buildup in a person’s system, she said. However, the amount of lead absorbed in a person’s body from food is an area of ongoing research. There is some evidence that eating certain beneficial nutrients could help prevent lead absorption from food, Kordas said.

“We have yet to tease out how much harm would come from lead found in food versus lead found in water or lead in paint,” Kordas said.

While most of the concern around lead centers on children, adults are not immune to lead exposure. Women of reproductive age who are exposed to lead at high enough doses can absorb the metal in their bones, Kordas said.

“When they become pregnant, it can be pulled out of their bones and impact their fetus,” she said. “The lead they’re exposed to could eventually affect their unborn children.”

The results appear to exceed certain state, federal and international standards for lead levels in food and soil, but calculating the extent to which people are actually exposed is a more complicated matter. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2024)

The dust samples are trickier to analyze.

All three experts interviewed noted that the lab tested the dust by weight, in milligrams per kilogram, or parts per million. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assesses lead in dust by area, in micrograms per square foot. To assess the risk by the EPA’s standards, one would need to know the size of the area tested.

The next best comparison would be the threshold for soil, experts said. In that case, the samples do exceed the threshold set by the state of Hawaii and the EPA for lead in residential soil, which is 200 parts per million. The samples were 206 and 299 ppm.

“That doesn’t mean that 210 is toxic because it depends on many variables,” Ceballos said. “It just kind of gives you a sense that it’s not totally safe. It’s not ideal.”

Lead-contaminated dust can pose a risk to children, Kordas said. Babies who crawl on the floor could pick up particles on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths. It’s also possible for people to inhale contaminated dust particles, she said.

But again, the source is unclear. Lead is a naturally occurring element in soil, Ceballos noted. And the homes tested were built in the 1950s, when lead was used in paint and gasoline.

“If you were really trying to answer if this shooting range is an issue, you would have to sample near the shooting range and have a comparison group,” Ceballos said.

If a gradient was found showing high lead levels near the range, lower levels at farther distances and, say, zero detections elsewhere on the island, Ceballos said one could argue the range could be the problem. Taken alone, Martinez’s lab test isn’t necessarily a call to action to conduct such a study, Ceballos said.

But Kordas said community concerns should be a factor in deciding whether to investigate further.

“If nothing is found, then the community and everybody can be assured that things are OK,” she said. “Not knowing is probably the worst. You can’t do anything about something you don’t know.”

If detections are found in wider testing, Kordas said abatement can help lower risk.

“When you remove the source, then the body can begin the process of getting rid of the lead,” she said.

‘A Bit Concerning’

For now, the Hawaii Department of Health is resisting calls to conduct an independent investigation.

It is backing the Marines Corps’ plan to test its own shooting berms, which border the Ewa Beach shoreline. The testing is meant to determine the contamination level on the outside of the berms and to assess whether contaminated soil may be eroding onto the beach.

At the Puuloa Range Training Facility, the Marines will test the outside of the berms touching the sandy shoreline. They do not plan to test the facility’s boundaries with nearby neighborhoods in Ewa Beach and Iroquois Point. (Marine Corps sampling plan/2023; Red arrows added by Civil Beat)

Sven Lindstrom, a state environmental health specialist, told Civil Beat last month the Marines’ testing will determine whether further investigation is necessary. He said it is common practice to examine a potential source of pollution itself and expand outward from there. Kordas agreed that is standard.

Even if DOH were inclined to get more involved, it has a limited capacity to do so. As of last month, Lindstrom’s office – called the Site Discovery, Assessment & Remediation Section – had a 50% vacancy rate.

Emergency responders in a different DOH office could do the kind of testing the community is requesting if there was evidence of a release impacting areas beyond the facility, according to Lindstrom. But Lindstrom said last month that DOH doesn’t have any evidence of that, “except for just hearsay we’ve heard.”

“Nobody has brought anything to us,” he said at the time.

But a month before his interview with Civil Beat, Hart shared Martinez’s lab report with Lindstrom, according to email correspondence obtained by Civil Beat.

In an emailed response, Lindstrom acknowledged there were unanswered questions about how the samples were collected but said it was “a bit concerning” that the dust samples exceeded the state’s lead threshold for dirt.

The Marines will do their own testing of their shooting berms, with oversight from the state health department. (U.S. Marine Corps/2022)

He also cited a study that suggested lead in fish should not exceed 0.5 to 2 milligrams per kilogram.

“If it is the case, then those lead levels they found are pretty high,” he wrote.

In an official statement though, the Department of Health said it doesn’t have enough information on the testing to render a judgment.

“Additional information on the methods used to collect, process and test the samples as well as the location of the collection areas is required in order for the Department of Health to provide comments on the data presented,” the department said.

The department put the onus on residents to investigate their own households.

“If families are concerned about potential lead exposure they should take their children to a medical provider and request a blood lead test,” DOH said.

If elevated blood levels are found, residents should evaluate potential sources, including paint, dust and soil, it said, offering to assist in that effort.

Camille Rios, a longtime Ewa Beach resident and mother of three, said if DOH doesn’t step up, she doesn’t know how the community will get the answers it needs.

“I don’t understand why they don’t have urgency,” she said. “I don’t know whose decision it would be if not them. Who else do we reach out to?”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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