FEMA Slow to Test Toxicity of Trailers
Thursday, July 19, 2007; 8:11 PM
WASHINGTON -- 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 their various illnesses.
Democrats and Republicans criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its limited inspections or tests of trailers whose occupants reported various respiratory problems.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed records showing that agency lawyers warned officials of potential liability problems if tests suggested government 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."