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Last updated 11:13PM ET
March 3, 2021
Alabama
Alabama
FEMA Memo Fuels Controvery on Trailer Safety
(2007-07-20)
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - Lawyers for the government's disaster relief agency discouraged officials from pursuing reports that trailers housing hurricane victims had dangerous levels of formaldehyde, according to documents released Thursday.

Lawmakers said they were infuriated. At a House hearing, they listened to three trailer occupants whose families suspect formaldehyde is to blame for various illnesses.

Democrats and Republicans criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its limited inspections or tests of trailers whose occupants reported respiratory problems.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed records showing that agency lawyers warned officials of potential liability problems if tests suggested negligence.

It's sickening and the exact opposite of what government should be," said the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. It is impossible to read the FEMA documents and not be infuriated."

The agency's chief, R. David Paulison, apologized to the trailer occupants.

This agency made the best decisions it could with the information it had," Paulison testified. Now we know we have to do something different than we've done in the past."

Formaldehyde, well known as a preservative and embalming fluid, sometimes is found in building materials that are used in manufactured homes. The chemical can cause respiratory problems and possibly cancer in high doses.

FEMA provided more than 120,000 trailers to people displaced during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Many thousands of people still occupy the trailers, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

When complaints of possible formaldehyde poisoning surfaced early last year, FEMA officials tested one occupied trailer and announced there is no ongoing risk."

But documents show the levels of formaldehyde found were higher than those considered safe by several government health and environment agencies.

The House committee unearthed documents in which one FEMA lawyer advised: Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. ... Once you get results ... the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

Paulison said the criticism was unfair because it was being done in hindsight. He told the committee, There is no existing consensus on safe formaldehyde levels in residential dwellings."

Agency employees urged people worried about formaldehyde to open and air out" the trailers because, Paulison said, that was the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control.

Paulison said he now realized that was inadequate, partly because the Gulf Coast's summer temperatures make air conditioning, with the windows closed, essential in trailers.

Waxman said FEMA was obligated to monitor formaldehyde levels in a sample of trailers rather than respond only to specific complaints.

Several government agencies offer different guidelines on formaldehyde exposure, he noted, but all would have flagged the levels found in the tested trailer as a problem.

The occupied trailer in Mississippi that FEMA tested in April 2006 had levels of 1.2 parts per million.

A concentration of 0.016 parts per million is considered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as the starting point for workers to use respirators if they spend all day in such conditions. A 15-minute exposure is acceptable at a level of 0.1 parts per million, it says; that is one-twelfth the level found in the trailer.

The EPA says a one-time exposure to formaldehyde at levels of 0.9 parts per million should not lead to irreversible harm," committee documents said.

The family departed the Mississippi trailer, but FEMA did not test any more occupied units, even when agency employees said formaldehyde possibly was a factor in the deaths of two trailer residents, the documents show.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the committee's top Republican, rebuked Paulison almost as severely as Waxman did.

Top FEMA officials, Davis said, misled the committee about the extent of possible formaldehyde contamination. He said FEMA's reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency's litigation position."

The noxious gas in those trailers should have energized FEMA to admit the problem and solve it, not hide it behind a fog of risk-averse lawyering," Davis said.

Paulison said FEMA received just over 200 complaints of strange odors including formaldehyde" in trailers and that 58 trailers were replaced because of formaldehyde concerns." Occupants of five other trailers were moved to apartments, he said.

Several lawmakers said FEMA should have seen the 200 complaints as a sign of a much wider problem.

Paul Stewart, one of three Gulf Coast residents who testified about difficult dealings with FEMA, said he finally gave up and bought his own trailer to place on his devastated lot.

Paulison said FEMA's lawyers were trying to protect the agency from lawsuits, but he now realizes FEMA should have been more aggressive in dealing with the concerns about formaldehyde. We simply did not have a grasp of the situation at the time," he said.

Waxman said earlier tests of trailers by the Sierra Club and others had provided plenty of warning. You did have the wrong judgment to listen to the bad advice of your lawyers," he told Paulison.

Paulison said the vast majority of trailers and manufactured homes do not have excessive formaldehyde levels. He said FEMA is working to try to discover the origin of higher concentrations found in some units.
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