FEMA Ignores Toxic Trailers of Hurricane Victims

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turned a blind eye to Katrina victims who became ill while living in FEMA-provided trailers, according to testimony given at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on July 19. Trailer tenants and experts described how FEMA, with evidence of toxic levels of formaldehyde in the trailers from construction materials, refused to substantively evaluate the extent of the problem, respond to known instances of formaldehyde poisoning or take adequate precautionary action.

Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) offered a scorching review of FEMA's inaction: "Senior FEMA officials in Washington didn't want to know what they already knew because they didn't want the moral and legal responsibility to do what they knew had to be done. So they did their best not to know." In a memo reviewing over 5,000 documents subpoenaed from FEMA, committee staff outlined a pattern of agency officials ignoring warnings about hazardous formaldehyde levels in the trailers from field staff and other government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Even after reports of formaldehyde poisoning in March 2006, FEMA refused to test occupied trailers and ignored testing that tenants had conducted independently. The agency implemented a testing program only for unused trailers six months later. The limited program, which indicated the trailers to have enough ventilation to reduce formaldehyde levels below the "level of concern," was explained by FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison as a data quality effort, "to eliminate any effects from human activities that might cause formaldehyde levels to rise."

However, hearing testimony revealed that there are several different "levels of concern" for formaldehyde. FEMA's testing placed the formaldehyde levels in the unoccupied trailers below an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard, which allows exposure to 0.75 parts per million (ppm) over an eight-hour period. In contrast, both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and EPA claim that much lower levels of formaldehyde can cause acute health effects. The NIOSH eight-hour standard for formaldehyde exposure is just 0.016 ppm, more than 46 times lower than the standard used by FEMA.

Medical personnel also reported a strong correlation between respiratory infections and living in the FEMA trailers. Sierra Club conducted its own investigation and found that 83 percent of the trailers they tested were above 0.10 ppm. This level of formaldehyde, coupled with the long exposure that resulted from the trailers being used as residences, meant that by many health and safety standards, the trailers were and continue to be extremely unhealthy places to live.

It appears FEMA was more worried about protecting itself from possible future litigation than protecting the health of Katrina victims. Messages uncovered by Waxman's subpoena reveal that the agency's Office of General Counsel (OGC) directed FEMA staff not to test formaldehyde levels without OGC's approval, since that, as one staff person explained, would "imply FEMA's ownership of this issue," and FEMA must be "fully prepared to respond to the results."

FEMA is only now testing occupied trailers for air contaminants at levels hazardous to human health. Hopefully, this effort is not too late for the residents still living in 67,000 trailers across the Gulf Coast region.

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