Drywall? SIDS? What's killing babies at Bragg?

12 infants die in 4 years, leaving parents and the Army asking why

Staff WriterMarch 27, 2011 

— The Army's recent announcement that another infant had mysteriously died while living in post housing at Fort Bragg was especially eerie to Pearline Sculley, like a bookend to her own tragic story.

The latest death was a boy, 4-1/2 months old, with no obvious illness, who seemed fine one minute on the morning of Feb. 24 and not breathing the next.

Sculley's own son, Jaden Willis, was 2-1/2 months old when he died suddenly on the same date in 2007. She still doesn't why.

The Army says it doesn't know, either, why 12 babies have died in four years, beginning with Jaden. An investigation of more than six months that included reviews of the children's medical records and autopsy reports - and hundreds of environmental tests at the homes where some of the families lived - failed to find a common cause.

Though the military can't say what killed the children, it is confident what didn't:Army housing, though three of the babies, including Jaden, lived at different times in the same townhouse.

Army officials have said the deaths fall within normal infant mortality rates, which count deaths of all causes among children less than a year old. Army figures are difficult to independently confirm. Mothers living on post may give birth at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center, or at a hospital off base.

The Army has said the average infant mortality rate from 2007 to 2009 for base residents at Fort Bragg was 5.3 deaths per 1,000 births. North Carolina's rate for 2009 was 7.9, the lowest in the state's history. For Cumberland County, where most of Fort Bragg's off-post population lives, the rate was 9.5 in 2009.

About 6,200 families, constituting about 18,000 people, live on Fort Bragg, in addition to about 45,000 single soldiers.

In discussing the infant deaths, Bragg officials have reminded parents to place babies on their backs to sleep and take other precautions to prevent sudden infant death syndrome.

"Multiple independent tests on the homes have identified no structural or environmental issues that would have caused these unfortunate deaths," Col. Michael P. Whetston, spokesman for the base, said last week. "We certainly wouldn't put soldiers [or] family members in quarters that are not safe and would take immediate actions if any of the test results indicated a potential environmental risk."

The military is almost ready to close its investigation. The families are not.

Families suspect drywall

They remain concerned that something - or some things - infants were exposed to caused a range of symptoms before finally overwhelming the children's defenses. Other children, as well as adults, have shown similar symptoms, including sinus problems, headaches and skin rashes, families say, suggesting to them a wider problem than the 10 infant deaths the Army began its investigation with last fall.

Failure to identify and fix the problem, families say, could endanger thousands of future residents of base housing in years to come.

The prime suspect in parents' minds still is tainted drywall, though the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which did most of the tests on the homes, ruled that out in the report it released last month.

"What the families want is information," said Jamie B. Hernan, a Roswell, Ga., lawyer who has asked the military for documents on behalf of several Fort Bragg families whose children died. "They're looking for a way to understand what happened to their children and to know what needs to be done so that it doesn't happen to someone else."

Army looks into complaints

The investigation began after Fort Bragg officials learned that three infants had died while their families lived in one townhouse in theArdennes neighborhood on post, starting with the Sculleys.

The two-story home was one of about 3,050 new or replacement housing units to be built on post by Picerne Military Housing LLC of Rhode Island under a 50-year, $4 billion contract the company won in 2002. Under the contract, Picernealso would renovate 1,815 housing units at Fort Bragg and build 11 community centers and other facilities.

When the contract was awarded, the Department of Defense said privatizing the housing at bases such as Fort Bragg was the only way to bring aging, deteriorating housing up to standard.

In the first 10 years of the contract, the Army said, Picerne would do more than $214 million worth of work, with the Army paying $50 million and Picerne investing the rest. The company would recoup its investment through the receipt of soldiers' housing allowances and a management fee.

Shortly after that, in the mid-2000s, a nationwide building boom, coupled with post-Katrina reconstruction along the Gulf Coast, created a drywall shortage. To meet demand, suppliers imported hundreds of millions of square feet of drywall from China.

By early 2009, homeowners in Florida were complaining that drywall in their homes smelled of rotten eggs. Complaints spread and began to include claims of health effects such as bloody noses, headaches,sinus problems, itchy eyes and skin, persistent coughs and asthma.

Some researchers have said that certain drywall contains high amounts of sulfide and that gases coming off it could be to blame for the health problems, as well as the corrosion of copper wiring, air-conditioner coils and other metal objects.

In spring 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, whose job is to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death from consumer goods, began to study the issue. It has the support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, along with state public health officials.

To date, the CPSC has received 3,810 drywall complaints, including 11 in which family members claim someone died as a result of illnesses caused or worsened by tainted drywall.

So far, "No infant or adult deaths have been associated with problem drywall," Alex Filip, spokesman for the CPSC, said last week.

Jaden's symptoms

Pearline Sculley says the only smells she recalls from December 2005 when she moved into the new townhouse on Groesbeek Drive at Fort Bragg were of new carpet and fresh paint.

"To be honest with you, I don't even know what rotten eggs smell like," Sculley said.

When Jaden, her fourth child and only son, born in December 2006, got sick when he was 2 months old, she thought it was a cold. He had no fever, she says, but he was stuffy, his nose ran all the time, "and there was this rumbling in his chest."

She twice called the nursing hot line at Womack, she says, but was told that if Jaden didn't have a fever, "There was nothing they could do."

On the night of Feb. 23, 2007, she took Jaden and his three sisters to their overnight child care and went to her third-shift job. Her husband at the time was serving in Afghanistan.

She got off work at 6 a.m. Feb. 24 and went to collect the children. Jaden was asleep in his car seat, and his nose was running. Sculley says she wiped it with a rag and thought she saw blood, but the sitter told her she thought it was jelly from the kitchen counter.

Sculley stopped on the way home as usual to pick up her regular babysitter so she could sleep. When they got to the house, the sitter took Jaden out of his car seat, "and he spit up blood," she said.

Sculley called to the other children to get back in the car and sped to Womack. Sculley says his medical records show that Jaden was breathing faintly when he arrived, but then stopped. Emergency room workers tried for nearly a half-hour to revive him.

Sculley says an autopsy report attributed Jaden's death to SIDS, but she never believed that. She says that though she didn't know to follow all the SIDS-prevention guidelines with her daughters, she was careful to lay Jaden down only on his back, not to cover him with blankets or put a fluffy bumper in his crib.

SIDS, which is cited as the cause of death in about 100 cases a year in North Carolina, is used when every other cause has been ruled out.

One address, three deaths

Sculley's husband was later assigned to a post in Kentucky, and the family relocated. Another family moved into the Groesbeek Drive house. In April 2009, that family's 2-month old son died in the house.

The mother told WRAL-TV thebaby had been sick for weeks - congested, coughing and vomiting - improving only when he was hospitalized for several days. When he returned to the house, she has said, he fell ill again.

After his death, the family was still living in the house when relatives came to visit with their 7-month-old daughter. The child died in July, while they were there.

"You're going to tell me that's a coincidence?" Sculley said. "I don't believe it."

At times, Sculley says, Fort Bragg officials have insinuated that she kept a dirty house and that it might have contributed to Jaden's death. The CPSC, working with the Army's Criminal Investigative Command out of Fort Belvoir, Va., ordered more than 400 tests on the house where Sculley lived and in a second house on post.

The tests looked for evidence of problem drywall and for chemical contaminants, organic compounds, trace metals, allergens, fungi and mold in the air and drinking water.

In an initial inspection of the home on Groesbeek Drive, an agent of the CPSC reported finding corrosion, one indicator of problem drywall. But the CPSC's final report said there was no problem drywall in the house.

An empty dwelling now

Picerne says its manufacturers and distributers have assured the company that they have only used U.S.-made drywall. Company spokeswoman Kelly Douglas said Friday that Picerne has had independent testing done in all the homes associated with infant deaths and that all results have been negative for tainted drywall. She said Picerne has offered free drywall testing to any interested family living in a home where drywall has been installed since 2004, and that tests have found no tainted materials.

"With thousands of measurements, samples and tests conducted to date, these efforts have all shown that Fort Bragg housing is safe," Douglas said.

The CPSC's 134-page report released in February did find levels of two pesticides in the Groesbeek Drive house that were at the "high normal" end of allowable levels inside the ductwork. The agency ordered more tests to see if dust samples from the house contained the chemicals. That report is expected any day.

No one now lives at that house, the Army says.

Hernan, the lawyer, hopes the military won't accept "undetermined" as a final answer in the infant deaths. At thevery least, he says, the Army could survey base residents about their health and look for clusters of symptoms.

That could mean tracking down tens of thousands of people; officials say every neighborhood on post has probably turned over three times since 2007.

No matter what, Hernan says, the families won't stop asking questions.

"It's not a story you can walk away from, especially when you hear that kids continue to get sick, or another child has passed away," he said. "The families don't need any more motivation than their own tragedies they have suffered. But they're going to find the answers, hopefully with the cooperation of the military."

Another sick baby

Sculley, now divorced from her first husband, has remarried and is living in base housing with her new husband and her daughters. She gave birth to her fourth little girl 14 months ago.

The baby is congested and has a cough all the time, Sculley says, except when the family leaves for the weekend. Within hours of returning home, she's sick again.

This month, Sculley notified Picerne she wants to move her family out.

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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