Army calls base housing hazards ‘unconscionable,’ details steps to protect families

FILE PHOTO: Homes at Fort Benning undergo lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer, Andrea Januta and Deborah Nelson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deeply troubled by military housing conditions exposed by Reuters reporting, the U.S. Army’s top leadership vowed Friday to renegotiate its housing contracts with private real estate firms, test tens of thousands of homes for toxins and hold its own commanders responsible for protecting Army base residents from dangerous homes.

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A home at Fort Benning undergoes lead paint removal as the U.S. Army mobilizes to protect residents against lead poisoning hazards in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

In an interview, the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said Reuters reports and a chorus of concerns from military families had opened his eyes to the need for urgent overhauls of the Army’s privatized housing system, which accommodates more than 86,000 families.

The secretary’s conclusion: Private real estate firms tasked with managing and maintaining the housing stock have been failing the families they serve, and the Army itself neglected its duties.

“You’ve brought to light a big issue that demands our attention,” Esper said Friday morning at the Pentagon. “It is frankly unconscionable that our soldiers and their families would be living in these types of conditions when we ask so much of them day in and day out.”

The Reuters reporting described rampant mold and pest infestations, childhood lead poisoning, and service families often powerless to challenge private landlords in business with their military employers. Many families said they feared retaliation if they spoke out. The news agency described hazards across Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps base housing communities.

The reports have already spurred a raft of reforms and investigations, and on Wednesday, U.S. senators pledged more action to come during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.

Two days after those hearings, the Army outlined to Reuters its immediate and longer-term plan of reform.

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching "Frosty the Snowman" at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Weston Tuttle, 5, does a nebulizer treatment while watching “Frosty the Snowman” at their home in Steilacoom, Washington, U.S. November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

“Our instinct is this is bigger even than what’s been reported, and we want to get to the bottom of it, get to the bottom of it fast,” said General Mark Milley, the Army’s Chief of Staff.

To do so, the Army said it will conduct an extensive survey of its family housing across the country to define the scope of potentially hazardous conditions. Reports in the past, provided by the private industry companies themselves, painted a “false picture,” Milley said.

Army leaders singled out mold infestations as the leading cause of health concerns. On Thursday, the Army ordered its private partner at Maryland’s Fort Meade, Corvias Group, to conduct air quality testing in the nearly 2,800 homes it operates there, and report back within 60 days. The Army expects Corvias to cover the costs, up to $500 per home. The directive came after Army leaders visited Meade, hearing first-hand about pervasive mold and maintenance lapses.

An earlier Reuters report described Meade families suffering from mold-related illnesses, ceilings collapsing in children’s bedrooms, and maintenance neglect leaving families unprotected from hazards.

In addition, the Army said it will begin renegotiating the 50-year housing contracts it has with its seven private housing partners, including Corvias. As Reuters reported, Corvias stands to earn more than $1 billion in fees and other compensation from six of the 13 military bases where it operates. Its fees continued flowing even as maintenance lapses plagued service families.

When unsafe conditions persist, the Army will seek to reduce or withhold fees from its private partners. And, it is examining ways to give service families more avenues to stop rent payments if problems are not quickly addressed, Milley said.

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

Mold damage on an air filter is pictured in the house of senior airman Abigaila Courtney at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, U.S. in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 11, 2018. Abigaila Courtney/Handout via REUTERS

The re-negotiation process could begin as early as next week, when Army Secretary Esper will start holding regular meetings with the CEOs of its private housing partners.

Another problem the Army acknowledged: Military commands across the country, many times relying on the word of private partners, allowed housing hazards to fester. Now, Milley said, Army commanders will be tasked with greater oversight.

The Military Housing Privatization Initiative, the largest-ever corporate takeover of federal housing, began in the late 1990s in an effort to rebuild an aging military housing stock by enlisting private developers and property managers.

“Just because someone said it’s privatized,” Milley said, “doesn’t wash our hands of the responsibility to take care of our soldiers and their families.”

Esper added:  “We are acting now. More to follow.”

(Additional reporting by M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Chemical weapons agency agrees to ban Novichok nerve agents

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The OPCW global chemical weapons watchdog will add Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent used in an attack last year in Salisbury, England, to its list of banned toxins after its members adopted a proposal on Monday.

The 41 members of the decision-making body within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted a joint proposal by the United States, the Netherlands and Canada, member states said.

They agreed “to add two families of highly toxic chemicals (incl. the agent used in Salisbury),” Canada’s ambassador to the agency, Sabine Nolke, said on Twitter.

“Russia dissociated itself from consensus but did not break,” she wrote.

Western allies ordered the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War in response to the attack on former Russian secret service agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March.

Britain says Russian GRU military intelligence agents poisoned the Skripals with Novichok. Moscow denies involvement.

Monday’s OPCW decision was confidential and no other details were released.

It was the first such change to the organization’s so-called scheduled chemicals list, which includes deadly toxins VX, sarin and mustard gas, since it was established under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The OPCW’s 193 member countries have 90 days to lodge any objections to Monday’s decision.

The OPCW, once a technical organization operating by consensus, broke along political lines over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which Russia supports militarily.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Lyme Disease “A Real Public Health Threat”

Doctors are sounding the alarm about Lyme Disease and the fact it’s beginning to spread nationwide.

“This is a real public health threat,” said Lyme Disease expert Dr. Richard Horowitz.  “We have to realize that this has spread.  It’s imitating all of these different diseases.  And people really need to understand the signs and symptoms and the unreliability of the blood test.”

Dr. Horowitz is trying to raise awareness of Lyme’s ability to mimic other diseases and because of the blood test’s tendencies to return false negatives, the importance of doctors and nurses looking at the symptoms to consider if Lyme is possible despite the test.

He gave the example of a Philadelphia area man named John who was a healthy landscape worker just four years ago.  He began to experience muscle twitching and eventually was unable to walk or feed himself.  It was only after he developed co-infections to Lyme disease such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever that doctors were able to confirm Lyme.

By then, it was too late for him to be treated by antibiotics and chronic Lyme had set in.  Now, John has to take about 60 pills a day for his condition.

Dr. Horowitz believes that the potential cause of long term Lyme is that the body’s ability to filter toxins is damaged.  Currently he is running studies to see if filtering toxins from the blood can help long term Lyme patients.

Environmental Toxins Increase Aging

A new study is showing that environmental toxins are leading to premature aging.

The study says a class of environmental toxins called gerontogens put humans at risk for accelerated again.  The toxins can be found in a wide range of items from second-hand cigarette smoke to UV rays and chemotherapy.

“Genetic studies have taught us only 30 percent of aging is genetic, meaning the other 70 percent comes from the environment,” Dr. Norman Sharpless told Fox News.  “Having a few [of these cells] is not a big deal.  But over the course of a lifetime, as they accumulate, they [contribute to] aging and many of the diseases we associate with aging.”

The study, published in Trends in Molecular Medicine, has allowed the doctors to create a test for substances to see their impact on aging.  The aging process begins when the body undergoes a process called senescence where healthy cells are damaged and are no longer able to divide.  The test will expose cells to substances until they cause the senescence process.

“Our work reasonably says cigarette smoking is the thing we could really do something about that would benefit the aging biology of a large number of people,” Dr. Sharpless said. “But we’re also reasonably certain there are other gerontogens we don’t know about yet.”