Lawmakers Criticize FEMA's Handling of Hazards Posed by Trailers

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

Nearly four months after the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised to study the risk of formaldehyde in trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina survivors, none of 52,000 occupied units have been tested, and FEMA has warned its employees for their own safety to stay out of 70,000 similar trailers in storage.

"This double-standard is wholly unacceptable," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said in a written statement, accusing FEMA of hiding the extent of trailer contamination and leaving "American disaster victims exposed to a whole new nightmare."

"The foot-dragging continues," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July disclosed documents indicating that FEMA had suppressed warnings about the health problems and had resisted testing since March 2006, in part because of fears over legal liability.

"It doesn't seem to me that the administrator is following through on what he said to the committee in July, nor is FEMA doing what needs to be done to adequately address this problem," Waxman said, referring to FEMA head R. David Paulison.

Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer, as well as to asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children. The federal government sets acceptable workplace exposure levels, but no standard exists for the travel-trailer industry, complicating the administration's response.

FEMA's workplace policy was described in an Oct. 19 e-mail in Louisiana and confirmed in an Oct. 30 nationwide memorandum, spokesman Russ Knocke said. Citing an employee monitoring study by the Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA told its workers not to enter any travel trailers sitting unused under sunlight. CBS News first reported the FEMA workplace policy on Wednesday.

Knocke said federal health officials found levels of the gas as much as eight times the limit under workplace safety standards. Testing was conducted in late September on trailers stored in Purvis, Miss., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Charles Green said.

Last weekend, FEMA once again postponed the planned start of testing on 300 trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi used by displaced families. In an interview, Paulison said the agency has not decided what levels of exposure would be acceptable, what results would trigger certain actions, and how to brief trailer occupants, state officials, Congress and the news media.

"I said, 'Let's stop,' " Paulison said. "I don't see this thing to be postponed more than a couple of weeks. We will test right before or right after Thanksgiving."

Paulison said there is no double standard for Katrina survivors and FEMA employees. Instead, he said, the difference is between trailers that have been aired out by occupants and those sealed in storage. A new FEMA memo states that the latter be ventilated by forced-air pump for 30 minutes before any entry by workers, Knocke said.

Overall, FEMA is moving 810 families a week out of trailers and into apartments, focusing primarily on clearing 5,000 units in trailer camps, Paulison said.

FEMA will search for patterns of contamination among more than 45 models of trailers, with the results expected by January, Green said. A follow-up study will focus on pesticides, mold, pet dander and household chemicals.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company