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FEMA Knew Of Toxic Gas In Trailers

Washington Post | July 20, 2007
Spencer S. Hsu

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency's lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers "could seriously undermine the Agency's position" in litigation.

On the eve of yesterday's hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use. But revelation of the agency's earlier posture -- in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress -- attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA's indifference to storm victims and said the situation was "sickening." He said the documents "expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance" and added that "senior officials in Washington didn't want to know what they already knew, because they didn't want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and "mischaracterized the scope and purpose" of its own actions. "FEMA's reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency's litigation position," Davis said. "FEMA's primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety."

About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.

Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.

"We have lost a great deal through our dealings with FEMA," said Paul Stewart, a former Army officer living in a trailer with his wife in Mississippi, "not the least of which is our faith in government."

In his appearance at yesterday's committee hearing, FEMA Director R. David Paulison apologized and said "in hindsight" FEMA should have tested trailers earlier. "The health and safety of residents is my primary concern," he said. But he depicted the 200 or so complaints as voiced by a small fraction of the number of families in trailers, and he said more research is needed to determine why some trailer residents have become sickened and what level of formaldehyde is unsafe in homes.

Paulison promised to consult with half a dozen U.S. health, environmental and housing agencies and with trailer manufacturers. He also acknowledged that concerns of environmental toxins in trailers go beyond formaldehyde. "There is an issue inside the trailers, but I don't know if it's formaldehyde, mold, mildew, bacteria" or something else, Paulison said.

FEMA tested new trailers last September and October after rejecting more stringent standards suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency, Waxman said. In May, the agency reported finding formaldehyde in those trailers at 1.2 parts per million, but it said levels dropped to 0.3 parts per million after four days of ventilation.

FEMA said that met a standard used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its manufactured homes. But Paulison said yesterday that FEMA now recognizes that ventilating trailers is impractical during the Gulf Coast's summer heat and humidity. Lawmakers noted that FEMA issued the advice at the beginning of last summer.

Mary C. DeVany, an occupational health and safety engineer advising the Sierra Club, testified that the exposure limit of 0.3 parts per million is 400 times the normal limit for year-round exposure set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. DeVany called the move a "misapplication and skewing of scientific results . . . to minimize adverse health effects."

FEMA tapped many manufacturers for trailers, and Paulison said he did not know if production problems contributed to contamination. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) defended the manufacturers pending a more comprehensive study of the problem. "You can't hang an industry on one case," he said.

But other lawmakers charged that FEMA's response augurs poorly for the nation's emergency preparedness. "I haven't seen this level of government incompetence outside of the nation of China. . . . And they executed an official in China for not having done their job," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), alleging parallels in lax consumer regulations and an uncaring government.

"No one is asking for that here, but how about a simple application of the golden rule?"

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