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FEMA Too Slow to Respond to Toxic Trailers, Report Says

Jul 24, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) "did not display a degree of urgency" when responding to reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in trailers used to house victims of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, according to a newly-released report from the Homeland Security Department inspector general.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, FEMA's response to the toxic trailer debacle was less than stellar.  By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers.

Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

E-mails uncovered during a congressional investigation into the toxic trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA’s Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

In late 2007, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

According to the Associated Press, the inspector general's report on FEMA's toxic trailer response is stinging in its criticism of the agency.  Among other things, the report says FEMA took too long to tell hurricane victims about the risks they faced by living in the trailers.

"When they (FEMA officials) did learn of the formaldehyde problems, nearly a year passed before any testing program was started and nearly two years passed before occupied trailers were tested and the occupants were informed of the extent of formaldehyde problems and potential health threats," the report said.

A FEMA spokesperson told the Associated Press that the agency has made progress since the toxic trailer catastrophe to make sure trailers and mobile homes given to disaster victims are safe.  The inspector general's report did note that the agency has instituted new designs for trailers and mobile homes and tests for formaldehyde in those units, the Associated Press said.

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