Defense officials don’t have enough information to be able to link mold, lead paint and other known issues in privatized housing to residents’ medical problems, according to DoD auditors.
Because this information hasn’t been available, DoD officials “were unable to effectively monitor and ensure the health and safety of service members and their families,” according to the report from the DoD Inspector General’s Office, released through the Freedom of Information Act. The original report was issued in April.
The report was congressionally mandated in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in response to persistent problems with mold, vermin and other issues in military housing, and families’ frustration arising from their futile attempts to get help from privatized housing companies and military installation officials.
Defense officials established the enterprise Military Housing system, or eMH, in 2014, to serve as the central data hub for gathering and analyzing timely, accurate information about the entire military housing inventory in order to make sound program and investment decisions.
Seven years later, in 2021, the Army and Air Force hadn’t fully populated the eMH system with housing or resident data in order to make any connections between housing hazards and resident medical events. By the end of March, the Army had uploaded nearly 94% of its housing units and the Air Force had uploaded 82%.
The deputy assistant secretary of defense for housing told auditors she would direct the Army and Air Force to include all their privatized housing units in the eMH by a mandatory deadline of Sept. 30. But as of Dec. 20, defense officials hadn’t confirmed the information was there, according to a DoD IG spokeswoman.
The DoD eMH system didn’t have a process for tracking, identifying and measuring housing hazards, but officials are in the process of doing that. They expect to complete an environmental health and safety module and the necessary updates to the eMH information system by the end of fiscal 2023, according to the Pentagon’s response to the IG report, signed by Patricia Coury, deputy assistant secretary of defense for housing.
Housing units were ‘generally safe and healthy’
While the auditors didn’t have enough information overall to connect possible exposures within houses with residents’ medical conditions, they did find that the housing units are generally safe and healthy.
Of the 211,826 privatized military housing units, there were 28,759 units that had open work orders as of June 30, 2021, the date auditors used in their study. They conducted a statistical sample of 500 housing units with 875 open work orders on that day to determine the percentage of housing units that had a condition that could potentially be unsafe or unhealthy, using the list of nine hazards in the 2021 legislation: mold; lead-based paint and lead in drinking water; carbon monoxide; asbestos; radon; pesticides such as rat poison; volatile organic compounds; infectious agents; and others which could cause conditions such as glycogen storage disease, Raynaud’s disease and cancer.
Auditors reviewed the work orders for each of those 500 units for any indication of potentially hazardous conditions in the housing unit. They found that only one unit had a recurring mold issue that was unsafe and unhealthy.
The auditors then extrapolated that number (one) over the entire population of 28,759 housing units that had work orders open that day, and projected that 58 homes might have had an unhealthy condition.
The congressionally mandated audit also required them to visit at least one military installation from each of the services to verify that housing units were safe or unsafe. They visited Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida;’ Naval Air Station Pensacola and Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Florida; and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
They couldn’t inspect all privatized housing units, but conducted walk-throughs of 15 vacant housing units and didn’t find any unsafe or unhealthy conditions in the units ready for occupancy.
The story of one Navy location
Auditors were able to connect housing information and residents’ medical events on a limited basis, because information is available on Navy and Marine Corps privatized housing. They reviewed one Navy location comprising 5,291 current and former residents. The eMH contained sufficient information on the historical housing inventory and resident information. Defense Health Agency officials provided all available medical data for the individuals, which included data for medical events that occurred before or after the individuals lived in the housing.
The IG’s office declined to provide the name of the Navy location due to privacy and security concerns, according to spokeswoman Megan G. Reed.
Defense Health Agency officials identified 21 people who had 31 medical events potentially related to carbon monoxide, mold or radon exposure. Of those 21 people, 12 didn’t have any indication of medical events during their time living in privatized housing.
Of the remaining nine, five had medical events for which records were available in the military direct care system; two individuals’ medical records did not include any indication of an exposure from a housing unit. Three individuals’ medical records confirmed that their medical events were associated with the condition of housing. All three were exposed to carbon monoxide due to damage to a water heater vent cap on March 9, 2014.
Auditors didn’t have access to information about individuals who were treated by civilian medical providers.
IG auditors recommended the Army and Air Force upload information on current and prior residents associated with each housing unit, once the inventory of units is complete. Defense officials agreed they should be required to upload available data, but only to the extent that the handling and storage of residents’ personally identifiable information complies with DoD’s policies. In addition, defense officials didn’t believe they could fully meet that requirement because not all historic data is available. Privatized housing landlords wouldn’t have any legal obligation to provide that data.
Defense officials, the services and privatized housing companies have taken a number of steps to be more responsive to residents’ concerns, and to provide more DoD oversight. For example, all 18 provisions of a tenant bill of rights have been implemented in privatized housing communities, except for five Air Force installations.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.