Toxic FEMA Trailer Supplier Kept Silent on Formaldehyde DangersJul 10, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
The company that supplied most of the toxic FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers given to displaced Gulf Coast residents after Hurricane Katrina knew the structures emitted dangerous formaldehyde fumes but kept silent. Reportedly, officials at Gulf Stream did not consider the formaldehyde to be a public health issue, and were more concerned about the public relations and legal consequences the company would face if the formaldehyde issues became public.
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”.
Late last year, 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.
While FEMA's despicable conduct in relation to its toxic trailers is well known, Gulf Stream's actions only came to light recently. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who convened hearings on the trailer issue this week, said internal documents from Gulf Stream showed the company had found "pervasive formaldehyde in its trailers, and didn't tell anyone." According to the Congressman, Gulf Stream's own tests of 11 trailers showed levels of formaldehyde higher than that which can cause adverse health effects. Tests also showed that over half of unoccupied trailers, which were sitting on lots awaiting transfer to displaced families, showed concentrations of formaldehyde at or above a level that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says people should not be exposed to for more than eight hours in their entire lifetime.
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 EPA.
Gulf Stream's only defense to Waxman's charges was to dispute his assertion that it had really tested trailers. Jim Shea, chairman of Gulf Stream, told the hearing that the company informally screened the trailers with a Formaldemeter, which is not a scientific test. However, Shea said his company in 2006 asked FEMA if it should test the trailers. But FEMA said no, he said.
Gulf Stream received over $500 million from FEMA for 50,000 trailers for Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.