Saturday, December 8, 2007
”On Thursday, July 19, 2007, the Committee held an oversight hearing on the Federal Emergency ManagementAgency’s (FEMA) failure to respond adequately to reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in the trailers it provided to displaced victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Witnesses at thehearing included current and former occupants ofFEMA-provided trailers, an industrial hygienist, a pediatriciantestifying on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, andthe current Administrator of FEMA. At the hearing, theCommittee heard about the adverse health effects the displacedvictims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes experienced while living inFEMA-provided trailers and FEMA’s failure to respond to their concerns.The Committee received testimony from three displaced Gulf Coast hurricane victims: Paul Stewart, LindsayHuckabee, and James Harris, Jr. These witnesses testified aboutthe adverse health effects they and their families experiencedwhile living in FEMA-provided trailers and FEMA’snon-responsiveness. The adverse health effects the witnesses experienced included nose bleeds, watery eyes, respiratoryproblems, and flu-like symptoms. According to the testimonyreceived, these adverse health effects were common for familiesliving in FEMA-provided trailers in the Gulf Coast. Ms. MaryDeVany, an industrial hygienist, testified that the limited testingthat had been completed by the Sierra Club revealed thatunacceptably high levels of formaldehyde were typical in thetrailers. Additionally, Chairman Waxman released a summaryof internal FEMA documents discussing the agency’s responseto reports of dangerous formaldehyde levels. The documentsrevealed that FEMA had recognized the presence and danger of formaldehyde as early as March 2006. Although FEMA fieldstaff urged a response to protect public health, FEMAheadquarters, particularly its Office of General Counsel,intervened to prevent action from being taken to understand andaddress the public health implications of the formaldehyde.Despite numerous complaints, FEMA tested only one occupiedtrailer to determine its levels of formaldehyde. The testconfirmed that the levels of formaldehyde were extraordinarilyhigh, presenting an immediate health risk to the occupants. Theindustrial safety specialist explained that formaldehyde is in theglue used to keep the particle board and plywood on the trailerwalls. Not only can it bring on respiratory miseries of all sorts,from scratchy throats to bloody noses to breathing difficulties,but it's a known carcinogen. While OSHA standards allow forhealthy, adult workers to be exposed to trace amounts offormaldehyde, they need to use a respirator when levels reach.016 parts per million. And, of course, these workers get to gohome to sleep in clean air at night. On the Gulf Coast, infantsand children and the elderly live 24/7 in trailers which have beentested by environmental groups as having up to .75 parts permillion. Note that when FEMA did finally check out theirtrailers, they first opened all the windows and had the air runningconstantly for a few days before doing the air-quality test. Sowhen an internal FEMA email stated that "there are no healthconcerns due to formaldehyde in our trailers," they werereferring to the air from their rigged test, not the actualair-quality conditions in their trailers. The monitored levels were75 times higher than what the National Institute of OccupationalSafety and Health recommend for adult exposure in industrialworkplaces. FEMA did not test any other occupied trailers, andreleased a public statement discounting any risk associated withformaldehyde exposure. FEMA suppressed the warnings fromits own field workers about hundreds of health problemsexperienced by hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees living intrailers provided by the government. E-mails obtained byinvestigators clearly show that FEMA's lawyers rejected aproposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentiallycancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers. Documentsprovided to the Committee showed that despite repeated requestsby FEMA field staff to conduct testing, FEMA’s Office ofGeneral Counsel denied these requests because “should theyindicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty torespond.” Administrator Paulison admitted during the hearingthat FEMA “could have moved faster” and that it would nowaddress the problem. FEMA Director David Paulison apologizedand said "in hindsight" that FEMA should have tested trailersearlier. "The health and safety of residents is my primaryconcern," he said. But he depicted the 200 or so complaints asvoiced by a small fraction of the total number of families intrailers, and said more research is needed to determine why sometrailer residents have become sickened, and what level offormaldehyde is unsafe in homes. Now it there is news thatinternal email from FEMA forbidding their employees to enterthe FEMA particularly dangerous trailers because of theformaldehyde risk. Yet FEMA is not doing anything for thenearly 50,000 people that are still living in the trailers 24 hoursa day in Louisiana. FEMA also has decided to halt the CDC’stesting of the trailers levels of formaldehyde. FEMA said that ithas no plan for how to deal with the information once it’srevealed. It is clear that FEMA is fully aware of the danger posedby formaldehyde by its policy with its own employees regardingFEMA forbidding their employees to enter the FEMA trailers.The people at FEMA that are responsible should be broughtup on criminal charges and held accountable for theirdecisions to put American lives in danger and if it is provedthat one person has died from exposure to formaldehyde orhealth problems exacerbated by formaldehyde they shouldbe charged with murder, attempted murder or manslaughter. That a government agency charged with protecting us is slowlykilling us instead, this should be the front-page news, and weshould not stand for it. There needs to be a special place in Hellfor this man, and many others in this Administration for allowingthis to go on.