Agency Rejected Environmental Testing on Formaldehyde Gas Levels
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post, July 19, 2007
At a hearing this morning of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, investigators released internal e-mails indicating that FEMA lawyers rejected environmental testing out of fear that the agency would then become legally liable if health problems emerged among as many as 120,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who lived in trailers.
FEMA's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing," because this "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue," wrote a FEMA logistics specialist on June 16, 2006, three months after news reports surfaced about the possible effects of the invisible cancer-causing compound and one month after the agency was sued.
Another FEMA attorney on June 15 advised,
Committee Chairman Henry L. Waxman (D-Calif.) called FEMA's bureaucratic neglect of storm victims "sickening."
Nearly 5,000 pages of documents turned over to the committee "expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance," Waxman charged. "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 obstructed the 10-month committee investigation and "mischaracterized the scope and purpose" of the agency's actions.
About 60,000 households affected by Katrina remain in trailers.
FEMA Director R. David Paulison, testifying after sitting through the four-hour hearing, apologized to Congress for withholding information and said "in hindsight" FEMA should have started testing trailers earlier.
"The health and safety of residents is my primary concern," Paulison said.
But he added that more research is needed to determine what is making people sick, and he spread responsibility to a half-dozen federal health, environmental and housing agencies and private manufacturers.
FEMA has received only 200 formaldehyde complaints, replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units, he said.
FEMA announced yesterday that it has asked CDC to help conduct a new public health assessment of trailers used for prolonged periods under real-life conditions.
U.S. health officials will collect samples, interview trailer residents, and focus on air quality issues and exposures, including children, the disaster agency said.]
As of May 2007, FEMA had received 140 formaldehyde complaints. Some Katrina trailer residents filed a class-action lawsuit in June in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.
The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast.
The formaldehyde controversy, revived scrutiny of the disaster-response agency. Its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 was chronicled in a series of government reports and led to a congressional overhaul earlier this year.
Today, Waxman and Davis charged that FEMA's apparent ongoing indifference to storm victims and resistance to investigators marked an infuriating pattern of bureaucratic self-protection that augurs poorly for the nation's emergency preparedness.
Waxman said FEMA exists to serve the public,
In May, FEMA said its own tests of 96 new trailers near Baton Rouge last September and October found formaldehyde at 1.2 parts per million, but levels dropped to 0.3 parts per million after four days of ventilation. FEMA said that is the accepted threshold used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its manufactured homes.
But Mary C. DeVany, an occupational health and safety engineer advising the Sierra Club, testified that that exposure limit of 0.3 parts per million is 400 times greater than the normal limit for year-round exposure set by the CDC-affiliated Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register. It is also three times the daily exposure limit recommended by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health, she said.
High levels of formaldehyde were still found in nearly all trailers sampled, whether continuously ventilated or air conditioned, DeVany said....
She called on FEMA to relocate without delay people living in trailers with levels above 0.05 parts per million and not to turn over any trailers for re-use without testing.
Formaldehyde is a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, plywood, glue, curtains, molded plastic and countertops.
The chemical can cause vision and respiratory problems. It has been linked to higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children with long-term exposure.
In a letter to Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) that month, CDC Director Julie Louis Gerberding wrote that her agency recognized residents' symptoms but said the effects of formaldehyde "are likely to be transient."
At a congressional hearing earlier this year, Paulison said, "We've told people they can air those trailers out," guidance the agency has formally issued to trailer residents.
Rep. Mark I. Souder (R-Ind.) defended trailer manufacturers at today's hearing and said that reports of illness remained anecdotal and isolated pending further study, which he supported.
"You can't hang an industry on one case where they checked it," Souder said. "We have some individuals, we have 177 formaldehyde complaints out of 100,000? . . . A sweeping statement doesn't cut it, there needs to be actual checking and measurement."
Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members had suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians had warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.