Bragg declares homes where infants died safe, federal officials unsure

By Mike Hixenbaugh and Drew Brooks
The Fayetteville Observer

Fort Bragg officials say test results have ruled out the possibility that conditions inside homes on the installation contributed to the inexplicable deaths of 10 infants since 2007.

But a separate and ongoing probe into military housing by the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has yet to eliminate any environmental factors in the deaths.

Despite the ongoing probe, officials with Fort Bragg and Picerne Military Housing declared Tuesday that the houses where infants died are safe.

Fort Bragg’s Directorate of Public Works ordered environmental tests at each of the 10 homes associated with the deaths, and those results were announced Tuesday.

“Across the board, none of them tested positive for anything that would contribute (to the deaths),” said Col. Stephen Sicinski, garrison commander at Fort Bragg.

The announcement came about a week after Fort Bragg officials disclosed the test results to current residents at the homes. Some of the parents whose babies died said they also were notified.

Jamie Hernan, a lawyer who represents the parents of four of the dead babies, said he and his clients are not satisfied with Fort Bragg’s findings.

“I’m not surprised the military has claimed there is no link between these deaths, but note that the Criminal Investigation Command maintains an open and ongoing investigation, as do other federal agencies,” Hernan said. “So clearly, the issue is not resolved, and the testing conducted by the military – in some cases years after the fact – certainly was not comprehensive enough to declare that their housing is safe.”

Drywall concerns

More thorough tests by CID and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are pending.

Investigators with the agencies have been testing air quality, building materials and other environmental factors at each of the homes where infants died.

It’s unclear when those tests will be complete, officials with both agencies said.

But an initial Consumer Product Safety Commission inspection of at least one of the Fort Bragg houses in question raised concerns about toxic Chinese drywall, according to a detailed safety commission investigative report obtained by The Fayetteville Observer.

The federal report, released this week following a Freedom of Information Act request by the newspaper, focuses on the home on Groesbeck Street in the Ardennes neighborhood where three infants were living at separate times before dying suddenly.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the lead federal agency looking into claims related to Chinese drywall, was called in to assist in the military probe of infant deaths after residents on post raised concerns about the possible use of the toxic imported building material, which is known to emit harmful sulfur gasses.

A Consumer Product Safety Commission investigator visited the Groesbeck Street house on Sept. 9, the report said.

The agent noted that many of the home’s metal fixtures were corroded, according to the report, and several of the home’s copper pipe fittings and wires had become blackened. Both are signs of Chinese drywall, the investigator wrote in the report.

At least two different types of drywall were used throughout the home, which was built in 2005, the investigator said in the report. He also noted a strong chemical odor throughout the home.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission report also details unexplained health troubles experienced by the parents and siblings of the three infants while they were staying at the home.

Pearline Scully, whose 2-month-old son died Feb. 24, 2008, after living at the house, told the investigator she and her husband had breathing problems while living at the home, and her other children developed boils and rashes on their skin.

Melissa Pollard’s 3-month-old son died at the house on April 15, 2009. She told the CPSC agent she and her husband also had respiratory problems while living at the house, which she said smelled of “rotten eggs” and chemicals.

Bianca Outlaw, whose 7-month-old daughter died at the Groesbeck Street house a few months later on July 23, 2009, told the investigator her baby was healthy before they moved into the house, but she soon developed a runny nose and a cough. Outlaw said she and her husband also became ill while living at the home, according to the report.

Many of the conditions described in the safety commission’s investigative report are indicative of Chinese drywall, according to federal guidelines. Further testing was needed, the investigator said in the report.

The imported building material was used in mass quantity earlier this decade during the housing boom and during rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Picerne, the private contractor charged with managing housing at Fort Bragg, has torn down, rebuilt or renovated thousands of homes at the installation in recent years.

Six of the homes where infants died suddenly, including the Groesbeck Street home, were built or renovated during or after the housing boom.

The CPSC investigator collected drywall samples from the Ardennes neighborhood home and inquired about the origins of building materials used in the house.

Those and other tests are pending, a spokesman with the federal agency said.

Tests ‘conclusive’

Sicinski said he was unaware of the CPSC report and said he would question the validity of any investigation that raised the possibility of Chinese drywall being in the houses.

The tests ordered by Fort Bragg ruled out the possibility of toxic drywall at each of the houses where infants died, Sicinski said.

“From our perspective, the tests are conclusive,” he said. “I’m pretty confident that the homes are safe.”

Sicinski said the testing by Fort Bragg wasn’t meant to offer closure for families whose babies died, but added that he “hoped to provide reassurance that it wasn’t the house.”

Audrey Oxendine, chief of the Fort Bragg Directorate of Public Works Environmental Compliance Branch, echoed Sicinski’s remarks.

“I think our tests have shown that there are no problems with the houses,” she said.

Oxendine said the environmental tests were based on adult exposure limits because there are no limit standards for infants.

Testing on behalf of Fort Bragg was conducted by Matrix Health and Safety Consultants and Womack Army Medical Center’s Environmental Health Service Department of Preventive Medicine. The analysis of the results was then completed by two other private firms, EMSL Analytical and Microbac Laboratories.

The full findings have not been released publicly as Sicinski said officials needed time to redact names and addresses from the results, he said. But he said the full reports would be made available.

“We are prepared to share all of the findings,” Sicinski said.

Staff writer Drew Brooks can be reached at brooksd@fayobserver.com or 486-3567. Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh can be reached at hixenbaughm@fayobserver.com or (910) 486-3511.
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