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HUD housing on Blackfeet reservation shows health hazards

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BROWNING, Mont. ? Residents of 153 government homes built with wooden foundations on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation say they're concerned the structures are causing an array of health problems.

They are also upset that some of the homes, built in the late 1970s and early 1980s with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are pulling apart because the foundations, supposedly guaranteed for 50 years, are structurally inadequate.

The wood foundations are treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now wants out of the marketplace because of health concerns. Some of the homes are plagued with toxic mold and mildew, caused in part by leaky foundations that have not held up in the reservation's unforgiving climate.

Reservation residents formed the Glacier Homes Committee last year to persuade HUD, the Blackfeet Housing Authority, and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council to seek funding for repairs where feasible and provide new homes on unmortgaged land to residents living in the worst dwellings. Tribal officials say they're willing to work with HUD to resolve the problems, but so far help has been slow in coming.

Gary Grant, one of the committee founders, says he and his wife, Mary, are convinced that at least some of their family's considerable health problems can be attributed to their house, which they're buying as part of HUD's "mutual self-help" program.

"We were so glad to get a home," said Mary Grant. "It was a dream home, and I thought we'd live there until we die. Now I wake up every morning with a headache."

In February, EPA announced that manufacturers of CCA-treated wood would voluntarily phase out of the product by 2004. New residential uses of the wood, including decks, play structures, fencing and landscaping timbers, are to be banned at that time, primarily because of the arsenic, a known carcinogen.

Testing by a New Mexico firm of five of the Blackfeet homes in January documented high levels of arsenic in the treated wood, but an ensuing report downplays health dangers.

"The main issue with this arsenic source is direct contact with the wood," the report said. "Skin irritation can occur, and arsenic can be absorbed through the skin. Inhalation and ingestion of arsenic is not anticipated, because the arsenic is bound up with the wood itself and would not be expected to escape into the atmosphere."

Still, residents are wary about doing any remodeling or repairs in the homes because EPA has issued warnings about sanding, sawing, or otherwise disturbing the treated wood. Mr. Grant notes that the new Headstart playground in Browning is also built with lumber pressure-treated with CCA.

The $14,000 study, paid for by the housing authority, also turned up extensive mold and mildew problems.

"The contaminants of most concern are the molds, which may be associated with the respiratory problems reported by residents," the report said. "Many of the molds detected have the potential to become allergens," which can trigger health problems. The report emphasizes, however, that more intensive study is needed.

Reservation residents late last year sought advice from Billings attorney Jeff Simkovic, who also has a master's degree in public health administration. Simkovic confirms he has been preparing for a potential lawsuit over the housing problems, but he told a recent meeting of homeowners and tribal leaders in Browning that it would be preferable to resolve the issues without a court fight.

"We have a bunch of home-owners who feel that the tribe has shafted them," said Simkovic, who told tribal leaders he's willing to help them find funding for a full-blown health study. "They don't know if they have a safe house. No one does. I'd rather not sue the tribe, because it's better to work with them (and HUD). There's no reason for a lawsuit, but they could force one."

Next time: Decades of controversy.