Editor’s note: This article by Patricia Kime originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
The Pentagon lacks the information it needs to track whether poor privatized housing conditions affect the health of troops and military families, despite evidence that some have gotten sick as a result of the living conditions, according to a department inspector general investigation.
The inspector general was unable to draw a link between housing conditions and any reported illnesses, because the Army and Air Force haven't put data on many of their homes into the Pentagon's housing records system, which also has no mechanism to track environmental health in the housing.
In addition, the independent watchdog estimated that fewer than .03% of the U.S. military's 211,826 privatized housing units -- or about 6,354 units -- were unsafe or unhealthy, as part of a report originally completed in April and kept under restricted access. The IG released the report to Military.com this month after a Freedom of Information Act request.
"Housing units were generally safe and healthy," the inspector general concluded in their report. But "because DoD officials did not have readily available access to sufficient information to connect health and safety to privatized military housing, they were unable to effectively monitor and ensure the health and safety of its service members and their families."
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The IG launched the investigation last year at the request of Congress to determine the number of military houses that were unsafe or unhealthy, whether housing conditions sickened any residents and, if so, the type and prevalence of any illnesses.
Dozens of military families have filed lawsuits over injuries and illnesses they said were related to living in squalid housing conditions, charging that the companies the military put in charge of housing ignored maintenance requests or took shortcuts in repairing their homes.
The move to privatize military housing began in the early 2000s as part of an effort to repair aging homes and improve the on-base housing supply for service members and their families. Dozens of companies have built and now manage 99% of on-base housing in the U.S.
A scandal erupted over housing in late 2018, however, following a series of media reports by Reuters and other news outlets on the presence of mold, lead-based paint and other dangerous conditions in the privately managed homes.
For their report, the IG auditors went to five installations: Fort Belvoir and Marine Corps Base Quantico, both in Virginia; and Eglin Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Pensacola and Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida. They toured housing offices, homes and units maintained for displaced residents. They did not visit any units that were considered unsafe.
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Inspectors analyzed work orders and projected through statistical sampling that just 58 were not habitable as the result of health or safety issues.
However, the auditors also weren't able to gain a complete picture of the scope of health issues experienced by military families in privatized housing, since the Army and Air Force had not completed their data input and lacked historical data on past residents.
What conclusions they drew about housing-related health conditions came from examining a section of Navy housing that had complete data on 5,291 residents. The inspectors found 21 residents with 31 reported medical issues, including 10 who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, eight with asthma or fungal sinusitis possibly related to mold exposure, and three with lung cancer, which may have been caused by radon.
The report noted, however, that 12 did not have the medical event while residing in their military homes and just three -- all residents who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of a damaged water heater vent -- could definitely be tied to military housing.
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They poured through work orders to analyze the type of work needed for homes and analyzed the content of the DoD's Enterprise Military Housing System, finding that the Army had only entered information for about 40% of its housing stock, including details of current residents, and the Air Force 25%, when the investigation first started.
Four months later, the Army had input nearly 69% of its stock while the Air Force's input had risen to nearly 59%. Yet without a full picture, and the fact that the system lacked an environmental health and safety input section, the inspectors could not assess the prevalence of illnesses or tie any diagnoses directly to individual homes.
The IG's office sent the report to the Pentagon's assistant secretaries of defense for sustainment and health affairs on April 1, but its content was restricted as it contained "controlled unclassified information."
Following the FOIA request, the Pentagon lifted the restriction and released the document.
The IG recommended that the Army and Air Force complete their input to the military housing IT system to include current and former residents and create an environmental health and safety module in the system,
Patricia Coury, deputy assistant secretary of defense for housing, agreed that the services must complete their input and said the module would be installed by the end of fiscal 2023.
Coury added, however, that obtaining and uploading information on past residents of Army and Air Force privatized housing may be challenging, given DoD policies on the handling and storage of personal information as well as the availability of the historical data.
"Neither the Army nor the [Department of the Air Force] has data on past residents who lived in privatized housing on their installations," Coury said. "While the Army and DAF could attempt to obtain this data from the private sector entities (i.e. landlords), this would raise significant [privacy] issues. ... The landlords have no legal obligation to provide such data."
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