Friday, July 20, 2007



RV Business
Friday, July 20, 2007

Top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) knew about – but suppressed – reports of possible health problems from formaldehyde in trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina victims, according to documents released yesterday by a House committee.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the warnings from Gulf Coast field workers were kept quiet because "senior FEMA officials in Washington ... didn't want the moral and legal responsibility to do what they knew had to be done," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as he opened a hearing into the agency's response.

Documents from the agency's general counsel advised FEMA officials against agreeing to testing because of the fear of liability for health problems among the 120,000 families who were temporarily housed in the trailers.

"Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK," one FEMA attorney wrote on June 15, 2006, three months after the first news reports appeared about possible formaldehyde-related problems. "Once you get results, and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

Waxman's frustration with FEMA was shared by the committee's top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who said that the agency "failed to get information they needed and failed to act to prevent this crisis."

"FEMA's reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency's litigation position," he said.

Davis said FEMA officials had acted to obstruct an almost yearlong investigation into the allegations by incorrectly invoking attorney-client privilege on most of the 5,000 pages of documents released yesterday. But the agency's director, R. David Paulison, denied taking a cue from legal counsel when setting agency policy.

"The general counsel does not set policy for this organization," said Paulison, who joined FEMA as acting director in September 2005 and was confirmed as its chief eight months later. "The health and safety of residents is my primary concern."

He would not confirm that formaldehyde had contributed to any illnesses, however, and said that FEMA trailers would soon be tested for mold, airborne bacteria and more, including formaldehyde. The tests, announced Wednesday, will be conducted in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Formaldehyde is a common component of glues, molded plastics and building materials, including particleboard used in manufactured homes. Symptoms of long-term exposure can include respiratory problems, burning eyes or nose, headaches, bloody noses and rashes. The chemical has been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen in humans.

Committee members argued that FEMA had ample opportunity to test the trailers after about 200 residents lodged complaints referring specifically to formaldehyde. Agency documents showed that only one inhabited trailer was tested, in April 2006. Its formaldehyde level was measured at 1.2 parts per million, 75 times higher than the maximum workplace exposure level set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

FEMA subsequently tested 96 new trailers last fall, but under what Waxman called dubious conditions - their ventilation systems and air conditioners were constantly running and the windows were left open for three weeks before final readings were taken.

Asking individuals to live like that, Waxman noted, was not realistic.

"We recognize that in the summertime on the Gulf Coast, that's not going to be reasonable," said Paulison, adding that the test conditions were set with advice from other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

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