Military Families Facing a Health Crisis with Mold, Lead Paint, and Rodents Throughout the US
By Cesar Collado
Just last week, countless reports were published regarding an environmental health crisis facing families that live in military housing. “For thousands of service members and their families, military housing is decrepit, dangerous and inescapable.” According to survey results released o February 13 by an armed services advisory organization, “The grievances paint a picture of slum-like conditions at bases across the United States, including black mold, lead, infestations of vermin, flooding, radon and faulty wiring.”1.
“The service members risk their lives. And in return, the organization as a whole doesn’t even give back with safe housing for us and our kids,” says Andrea DeLack, who fled a new, mold-ridden home on a U.S. Air Force base in Mississippi
In 1996, the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) was established by the United States Congress as a tool to help provide quality housing to service members required to live on base.
The MHPI was designed and developed to attract private-sector contractor financing for military housing and “landlord” management more efficiently than traditional military construction processes would allow. The initiative included approximately 200,000 homes managed by 35 companies. In 2018, $3.9 B was paid directly to these companies. Some families do have the option to live off-base, but, few can afford to do so on a military salary.
The MHPI initiative ultimately resulted in inexpensive construction, sloppy building practices, and mismanagement of older, existing housing. As with any bureaucracy, housing complaints would be managed by the private companies. Then, without the inability to withhold rent, get proper testing, and professional remediation (due to property being on federal land), housing issues, when they arose, were not addressed. Military families were thus forced to live in horrible living conditions with little to no help, resources, or recourse. Because rent is collected, much of the fees collected in the housing contracts become profit.
On Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, during a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, residents and the housing managing companies testified to congress on living conditions. The hearing was eye-opening with many first-hand accounts and photographs of slum-like housing that illustrated the depth of the issue.
Crystal Cornwall, a Marine spouse present at the hearing, launched a nonprofit called the Safe Military Housing Initiative after running into her own residential nightmares and hearing of others. For two years, Crystal investigated housing complaints throughout the US. In her tearful testimony, she stated, “I received hundreds of reports from military families of mold growth, rodent and pest infestations, moisture intrusion, lead and asbestos exposures, radon concerns, base contamination, and cancer clusters in their housing. We will likely suffer from the effects of this for the rest of our lives, physically, financially, emotionally and mentally,” 3.
This year, the Military Family Advisory Network conducted a survey online for one week, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 6 and garnered 16,779 responses. Of those, 14,558 met the requirement of living in privatized military family housing currently or within the past three years. The results of the survey to determine whether responders felt safe and comfortable showed that an overwhelming majority, 55%, had “negative” or “very negative” responses.4.
Tenant rights are limited by the military and the private landlords under contracts that give landlords complete control of housing for 50 years. These contracts omit basic protections all civilians take for granted. As a result, families have little recourse in resolving health threats such as rodents and mold. To exacerbate the problems faced by these families, the landlords often bill them for repairs such as replacing carpet, although the carpet could be severely contaminated by mold or rodent feces.5.
The Core Problem: Lucrative Business and Negligent Management Combination
Over 200,000 homes (99% of military housing) is managed by several private companies. In 2018, the Department of Defense allocated $3.9 B to rent stipends. The housing management business is extremely lucrative. Reuters published an expose in the New Your Post describing lucrative contracts, “recession proof” industry during the housing bubble bust, millions of dollars spent on lobbying and political donations, and the lavish lifestyles of the management of these companies.6.
The contractors who manage these homes have limited experience dealing with environmental standards. There are countless stories of mold remediation efforts by landlords ignoring contamination issues and being slow to address issues. Reports emphasize lack of accountability, proper mold testing, and methodology to remediate mold. Examples include cleaning ducts without addressing mechanical room mold issues leading to further contamination of the home due to mold disruption. Water and mold issues are reluctantly addressed in isolation without any understanding of the systemic issues surrounding ventilation physics and mold contamination. For example, according to an article in the Post,“Instead of replacing sub-flooring, a contractor referred by the property manager, Harbor Bay, sanded through the mold but didn’t cover the family’s clothes, furniture and carpets. . .bombarding their home with toxic spores as they huddled in a hotel room for nearly two months.”7.
This recent report is disturbing on several levels. It is unfathomable to think that the families of our military service professionals are, in some cases, living in more dangerous conditions than those compared to their spouses who are deployed during a war overseas. Further, the families have limited financial resources and little to no recourse against management companies who will not fix their homes or keep their families safe. They cannot withhold rent and do not have the resources to leave or fix the homes they must live in. This crisis includes both older, established homes as well as new construction.
There have been few court cases where lawsuits were filed by families against the Military Housing Companies due to mold causing severe illness. Because of the limited protections provided to civilians by the private companies managing military housing, few cases were moderately victorious. In one case in April 2016, a family seeking $8 M in damages received a $350,000 verdict for negligence; however, the courts ruled against breach of contract. Most suits filed for multi-millions in damages are calculated where severe suffering or death supports the requested damages. The case is being appealed 7.
Many familiar mold illness symptoms have been vividly described in the flurry of news on the topic. The situation is particularly tragic as this population is financially “stuck” in their homes and are not empowered to repair the issues. During last Wednesday’s congressional hearings, testimonies made include the following soundbites:
- “I have felt the helplessness of a fellow Marine Corps spouse as she held her new baby and sobbed while we stood under a collapsing moldy ceiling in her home at Camp Lejeune;”
- “I listened in horror as families at Camp Pendleton told of mice eating through pacifiers and their baby’s cribs and electrical outlets catching fire due to wiring issues;”
- A multitude of reports citing “constant sore throats, nose bleeds, brain fog, blurred vision numbness, fatigue, debilitating headaches;”
- A military spouse who described her children suffering headaches so severe that she was “concerned they had cancer;”
- And finally, accounts of “respiratory problems with trouble breathing, year-round allergies, and pneumonia.”
In response, Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley issued a statement:
“We are deeply troubled by the recent reports highlighting the deficient conditions in some of our family housing. It is unacceptable for our families, who sacrifice so much, to have to endure these hardships in their own homes. We are fully committed to providing a safe and secure environment on all of our installations. We have directed an Inspector General investigation and have taken other actions.”1.
What If You Are in a Similar Housing Situation? Can Anything Be Done?
Because the general population have protections in terms of civilian rights and the ability to move, the harsh conditions described in this article typically would not be allowed to get so excessive. Thus, there are several actions that can be taken by most people to protect their bodies, belongings, and homes:
- If severe mold is found, get out of the home and have it tested;
- Test your home for mold using EC3 Mold Screening Test Kits;
- Be diligent when looking for licensed and experienced mold remediators and HVAC Professionals;
- If you live in a rental, file complaints with evidence–mold testing, pictures, medical bills, etc.;
- Regular fogging with the EC3 Mold SANI+TIZER Fogger and EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate and using EC3 Air Purification Candles to reduce fungal air counts. This may only be a “Band Aid” solution until moisture issues are fixed and mold is removed;
- Use EC3 Laundry Additive regularly to remove mold from clothing and bed linens;
- Daily rinsing of nasal passages with CitriDrops Dietary Supplement and a saline rinsing system is an extremely effective means to remove the mold already in your nose, where the mold enters and the damage begins.
1. Norton, Alex,Black mold, rats and lead: Survey of military families paints slum-like picture of housing on US bases, The Washington Post, February 13, 2019
2. Pell, M. B. “U.S. Air Force’s new housing dogged by construction flaws, imperiling tenants” Reuters Investigates. December 18. 2018
3. Grisales, Claudia. “Families living with military housing horrors plead for reforms.” Stars and Stripes. February 13, 2019.
4. Jowers, Karen.More than half who took survey are dissatisfied with military privatized housing, Military Times, February 13, 2019
5. Nelson, Deborah, “Special Report: U.S. Marine families battle mice, mold and landlords.” Reuters. November 1, 2018
6. Reuters. “’I find it appalling’. Developer Makes Millions Off Rundown Military Homes”, New York Post, December 27, 2018
7. Greenway, Erica. Military Families Warn of Unsafe Housing: Rats, Toxic Mold and More.” Fox News, February 14, 2019