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First to Act on Toxic FEMA Trailers was Unpaid Volunteer

May 1, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The woman who first raised the alarm about the toxic trailers distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to Hurricane Katrina victims is the subject of a USAToday profile.  Becky Gillette, an unpaid volunteer with the Sierra Club in Mississippi, took it upon herself to test a handful of FEMA trailers in 2006, after hearing health complaints from some residents.  

Thousands of people in Mississippi and Louisiana were given FEMA trailers as temporary housing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But 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. Despite the reports, e-mails uncovered last summer during a congressional investigation into the 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”.

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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gillette was one of the first to realize just how toxic the FEMA trailers were.  According to USAToday, Gillette heard of babies getting sick and pets, including a co-worker's parakeet, dying in the trailers over several weeks from late 2005 through early 2006.  A former journalist, Gillette knew about the symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning, and immediately suspected the chemical.  After a friend found a company online that sold formaldehyde testing kits, Gillette ordered 32 of the $35 kits and tested trailers along the Gulf Coast. A staggering  30 of the 32 trailers registered unsafe levels of formaldehyde. By summer 2007, Gillette had organized testing of 69 FEMA trailers and mobile homes — 60 of them showed high levels of formaldehyde.

The Sierra Club tried to let FEMA know of its findings, but the agency wouldn't listen.  It also wasn't listening to its own people.  According to USAToday, Jesse Fineran, a FEMA manager in charge of mobile homes in Mississippi's Hancock County, was also hearing complaints from trailer residents in the summer of 2006.   Fineran was ignored when he told his supervisors about the problem, and was later demoted. FEMA told USAToday that Fineran is under investigation but would not elaborate.

It wasn't until congressional hearings in the summer of 2007 revealed FEMA's outrageous disregard for trailer residents that the agency began to take the formaldehyde issue seriously.  One of those testifying at the hearings was Becky Gillette.

Late last year, FEMA  and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 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.  


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