Findings on Katrina Trailers Went Undisclosed, Maker Says

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

A leading U.S. trailer manufacturer failed to disclose to Hurricane Katrina evacuees or the government its internal findings that formaldehyde in some units exceeded a federal health standard by as much as 45 times in 2006, its chairman acknowledged to Congress yesterday.

Jim Shea, chairman of Gulf Stream Coach, which built 50,000 trailers for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $520 million, said his company decided that its results were "irrelevant information" because FEMA already knew about high formaldehyde levels. The agency and the company were working together to improve ventilation, he said, and FEMA later turned down company offers to conduct more tests.

In hindsight Gulf Stream should have shared information from its sampling, Shea said. "Anything that would have been helpful to public health in any kind of way with this in retrospect, we would have loved to have been able to shed more light on it," he said.

The testimony came as Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform clashed over builders' responsibility for the housing debacle that unfolded after the August 2005 storm, raising both public health alarms along the Gulf Coast and doubts about how the government will house Americans in future emergencies.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this winter that all Katrina trailer residents be moved to safer housing after finding elevated formaldehyde levels in 42 percent of trailers. Four companies -- Gulf Stream, Forest River, Keystone and Pilgrim International -- were identified as having significant problems.

Appearing under oath, executives of those companies each acknowledged CDC findings that some of their products contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde, a common industrial chemical used in glues to make particle board and plywood. It has been linked to cancer and higher rates of respiratory illness.

But company officials and some GOP lawmakers blamed the federal government for failing to set any binding indoor air-quality standards for formaldehyde in trailers or any other U.S. housing. Republicans from Indiana, where the recreational vehicle industry is based, defended builders' records and integrity.

"The problem was and remains confusion among federal agencies, not some conspiracy among trailermakers," said ranking committee Republican Rep. Tom Davis (Va.).

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said that 8 million Americans live in or own mobile homes or trailers but that there had been only a handful of formaldehyde complaints before March 2006. "Instead of beating up manufacturers, we ought to give them a little vote of confidence," he said.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) suggested that companies were being subjected to a "double standard" and dubious science, noting that even before Katrina a Tulane University study had found high formaldehyde levels in conventional homes in Baton Rouge.

However, committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said the government's failure to set a higher uniform standard and FEMA's efforts to suppress warnings and delay testing did not end companies' obligations to ensure product safety.

"What happened is a disgrace on the part of government in particular, but it's not an exoneration of the many who knew or should have known that, in fact, trailers were not safe for those people inhabiting them," Waxman said.

Committee investigators found that Gulf Stream tested 11 occupied trailers and that all exceeded the CDC threshold. Four of them would have triggered medical monitoring under U.S. Labor Department rules if they appeared in a workplace.

More than half of nearly 40 unoccupied trailers tested had formaldehyde that exceeded the CDC standard by nine times, a level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe only for one eight-hour exposure in a lifetime. But the company did not disclose the results to families, and FEMA apparently never asked for them.

Committee Democrats cited a March 20, 2006, plea to Gulf Stream in which a Katrina trailer resident wrote: "There is an odor in my trailer that will not go away. It burns my eyes and I am getting headaches every day. . . . PLEASE, PLEASE HELP ME!!"

"What we've seen here is no regulation," Waxman said, "and no self-regulation by the industry as well."

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