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Toxic FEMA Trailer Dangers Downplayed, Whistleblower Claims

Apr 2, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Reports on toxic formaldehyde fumes emitted by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers used to house Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims were watered down by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a whistleblower told a Congressional panel yesterday.  Christopher De Rosa, a top toxicologist for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), said in written testimony that his advice to warn trailer residents about the health effects of formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers was ignored.  

When Hurricanes Katrina  and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of those made homeless moved into FEMA trailers.   FEMA housed up to 143,000 displaced families in trailers and mobile homes. About 30,000 units are still occupied.  By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers that residents where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers.  The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers.  FEMA has been accused of willfully ignoring the toxic trailers' safety issues.  

In February, the CDC released preliminary tests of formaldehyde fumes in the FEMA trailers.  The tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers pose a serious danger to residents still living in them. The CDC trailer tests revealed average formaldehyde levels of 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 ppb.  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.  The CDC said at the time that it was urgent that those still living in toxic FEMA trailers be relocated as soon as possible.  

A year earlier, ASTDR had been commissioned by FEMA to look into the trailers' formaldehyde problems.  That report minimized the dangers posed by the toxic fumes, and stated that leaving windows open and air conditioning running would keep formaldehyde below "levels of concern." But De Rosa told the told the House Science and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight that he repeatedly warned the CDC that this action was not adequate to protect trailer residents.  "I stressed the importance of alerting the trailer residents to the potential reproductive, developmental and carcinogenic effects ... (but) the only response I received was that such matters should not be discussed in e-mails since they might be 'misinterpreted.'" De Rosa said in written testimony. "Since formaldehyde is a carcinogen, it is a matter of U.S. federal government science policy that there is no 'safe level' of exposure."

According to USAToday, ATSDR Director Howard Frumkin was criticized by lawmakers on the panel for ignoring De Rosa's  concerns   Lawmakers also questioned De Rosa's removal from his job last fall and asked why he was given an "unsatisfactory" performance review.

Frumkin denied that the agency retaliated against De Rosa, and claimed that the ASTDR study did not " meet our standard of excellence".   However, he did concede that the CDC was too slow to act on the formaldehyde issues presented by the toxic FEMA trailers.


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