The Toxic Trailer Legacy

Formaldehyde sensor in FEMA trailer, photo by Jim Fortenberry

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already had a poor legacy after Hurricane Katrina - one that was worsened by the agency's lack of action over the formaldehyde-fuming travel trailers given to residents to live in until their homes were rebuilt. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is also receiving heavy criticism for not protecting these citizens. In the past week, both agencies again received a black eye for their handling of the toxic trailers after Hurricane Katrina.

Yesterday a House Committee found that the CDC and its sister agency failed to protect the public's health :

"The agency's incomplete and inadequate handling of their public health assessment, the failure to quickly and effectively correct their scientific mistakes and their reluctance to take appropriate corrective actions was all marked by notable inattention and inaction on the part of ATSDR's ( Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ) senior leadership.  As a result, tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina and Rita families living in trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde were kept in harm's way for at least one year longer than necessary."
FEMA trailers in storage, photo by Mary C. DeVany

And news out last Friday from a federal judge is a powerful blow to FEMA: The agency is not immune from lawsuits from Gulf Coast residents who had to live in those trailers. From the Associated Press article:

"U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt cited evidence that the Federal Emergency Management Agency delayed investigating complaints about formaldehyde levels in its trailers because it might be held legally responsible. The preservative can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen."

Last Friday's ruling showed just how dirty the politics got behind the scenes at FEMA and the CDC - dirty enough to play with the health of thousands of Americans.

I also want to highlight a fantastic new investigative piece out from ProPublica , all about why FEMA and the CDC did not react with urgency once they were made aware of the formaldehyde levels in the trailers. It comes down to a cover-up and the use of an incorrect exposure standard in issuing any regulations or action for the residents in the trailers.

The Sierra Club was the first organization to test the travel trailers for formaldehyde back in 2006 after Gulf Coast residents started telling us about their health issues. Local resident and Sierra Club organizer Becky Gillette - dubbed "the Erin Brockovich of formaldehyde" by a Gulf Coast newspaper - united with the national Sierra Club on a campaign to get the residents out of the trailers and to hold FEMA accountable.

Sierra Club testing showed  that 88 percent of FEMA trailers tested in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama had levels of formaldehyde above the recommended limit of 0.10ppm for short-term exposure. Using limits recommended for long-term exposure, none of the trailers was safe.

This exposed tens of thousands of occupants to the potential for health impacts including watery eyes, burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea, and skin rashes. Especially vulnerable are mothers, children and the elderly, who tend to spend more time in the trailers.

I applaud this campaign to hold our government accountable for its lack of action, and hope it will help to avoid this type of gross oversight in the future.

More on toxic trailers from the TreeHugger archive.
FEMA Trailers Had Too Much Particle Board, Too Little Ventilation ...
Toxic Trailers Not Just For FEMA.
FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Liability Suit On The Way
FEMA Ignored or Buried Formaldehyde Research
FEMA Formaldehyde Fiasco Festers