FEMA’s toxic-trailer ineptitude in housing Katrina victims raises concern about climate preparedness


Better means for providing temporary living quarters for those whose homes are damaged or destroyed in natural disasters must be identified and implemented to avoid future mistakes and additional harm to victims of extreme weather events, projected to worsen with global climatic disruption. The Federal Energy Management Agency (FEMA) is facing accusations of negligence, dishonesty, and unaccountability in its task of providing safe, alternate housing for displaced victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and is the target of Congressional investigations and a class action lawsuit for dispatching formaldehyde-laden “toxic trailers.”  We are calling for a “lessons learned” case analysis to inform future disaster recovery efforts as part of a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative.

On April the House Science Committee Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing that focused on the Center for Disease Control’s abysmal record in dealing with FEMA on the issue of health hazards of carcinogenic formaldehyde in the housing trailers provided to displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina.

[This post was developed by CSW Senior Research Associate Anne Polansky.]

FEMA officials could and should have known that high formaldehyde levels in travel trailers were likely to present a serious problem.  Three basic facts were known or knowable, long before FEMA’s decision to rely these trailers:  formaldehyde is toxic, it is widely used, and it is not regulated in travel trailers. This post focuses on the debacle surrounding the formaldehyde-laden trailers and FEMA’s culpability in further endangering the very people it is supposed to be helping.

Hurricane Katrina (FEMA disaster #1603), the third strongest hurricane ever to hit land in the US, caused nearly 2,000 people to lose their lives, and, at $80-plus billion and climbing, is the costliest natural disaster so far in US history.  Katrina’s August 29, 2005 landfall was soon followed by Hurricane Rita (FEMA disaster #1607) on September 24, 2005, the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.  Rita caused even more loss of life and incurred an additional $11.3 billion in damage along the coasts of southeastern Texas and Louisiana, according to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, Tropical Weather Summary for 2005. [see here

A couple of weeks after Katrina, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “in just 14 days, the hurricane scattered as many as 1 million evacuees across the US, the largest dislocation in 150 years… if not the largest ever… It’s as if the entire Dust Bowl migration occurred in 14 days.” [see here]

Now, going on three years later, both the death toll and cost continue to climb.  Many of those who fled still have not returned; many were forced to stay simply because they had nowhere else to go.  It is estimated that more than 10,000 are still homeless.  All of those displaced by these events have been referred to as the first wave of US “climate change refugees.”  [see here]

Hundreds of thousands of homes in the gulf region were destroyed or too damaged to live in as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA’s primary answer to the need for temporary housing, apart from locating rental properties, hotel/motel accommodations, and offering low-interest loans for home renovation and repair, is to ship in “travel trailers,” units that are smaller than manufactured homes and are typically meant to be used recreationally or as temporary housing.  More than 120,000 of these trailers were dispatched to the Gulf region, most of which had been manufactured as rush jobs to meet the sudden surge in demand.  Recipients, most of whom purchased the trailers from FEMA at a discounted price, parked them in their driveways or front yards to have a roof over their heads while their homes are being repaired and rebuilt; many others are grouped in trailer parks or in industrial areas or even abandoned lots.  [see here]

Within weeks of occupying the trailers, hundreds of people began calling into FEMA to complain of itching and burning eyes, nose bleeds, coughing, sinus infections, bronchitis, asthma-like conditions, and other more serious symptoms.  FEMA barely responded by encouraging people to open their windows, turn on the air conditioning, and in some cases, offering to replace the newer trailers with older models that had “aired out.”  By December 2005, a trickle of local news stories began to report suspected high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, and it quickly became evident that FEMA was doing little or nothing about it.

In response, volunteers with local chapters of the Sierra Club began testing trailers along the coast with kits they purchased themselves, and found that the vast majority of trailers tested in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama were well over the indoor air quality standard set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – see Reference Note at the end of this post.  [Source: here]  A Sierra Club newsletter was devoted entirely to the findings.  Dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of formaldehyde,” 52 year-old freelance writer and Sierra Club volunteer, Becky Gillette, acting in classic whistleblower fashion, organized a massive grassroots testing project during the spring of 2006 and spearheaded a campaign to pressure FEMA to do something about the problem.  [see here

Sierra Club spokesman Oliver Bernstein expressed his frustration in the spring of 2006. “At this point, all we can do is wonder whether FEMA is taking this seriously. Nobody should be living in housing that will make people sick. There are still tens of thousand of people, mostly along the Gulf Coast, still being exposed. It’s another example of politics trumping science.”  [see here]

It was not for almost another year, however, that word of this problem began to reach those willing and able to ask the right questions.  Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened an investigation and held a hearing on July 19, 2007 on FEMA’s failure to respond adequately to reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in the trailers and released internal FEMA documents revealing that FEMA had recognized its presence and associated problems as early as March 2006.  There were FEMA field staff emails and memos to superiors urging immediate action to prove it.  FEMA, however, had deliberately chosen not to act, and even had made a public statement in May 2006 that it didn’t intend to test the trailers for formaldehyde.  [see here and here]

A Washington Post article covering Waxman’s findings of what seem akin to criminal negligence by the responsible federal officials, stated:  “On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency’s Office of General Counsel ‘has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.’ A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: ‘Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK….Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.’”

The article reported that on June 27, 2006 a man who had been complaining about the fumes was found dead in his trailer in Slidell, Louisiana and that “in a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing.  But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers ‘could seriously undermine the Agency’s position’ in litigation.” 

So we know from this the names of FEMA lawyers who put politics ahead of scientific integrity, and their agency’s potential exposure to litigation ahead of their responsibility as professionals and as citizens to exercise due diligence on behalf of human life and health.  But:

Who were those 28 federal officials from six agencies who recommended testing and were denied by the FEMA lawyers?  Did none of them step forward to challenge FEMA’s decision not to test?  To our knowledge, to this day, not one of the 28 has talked publicly about FEMA’s attempts to dodge culpability for the problem — though as federal employees they have a right to speak.  Was one or more of them a confidential whistleblower aiding the House Oversight Committee, pointing committee investigators in the direction of the documents that were subsequently subpoenaed?  If so, they rendered a significant public service and should be applauded.  If not, why not?  Federal employees, like other citizens, have a right to report such abuse of power to Congress.  What do these 28 individuals consider to be their responsibility in such a matter?  What alternatives to silence and complicity did any of them consider, and what, if any, actions did they take?

Waxman’s investigation also discovered that that the chief of toxicology for the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Christopher T. DeRosa, had been pressured by FEMA to release information only on the short-term health effects of formaldehyde and to report a “safe” level of exposure, but refused to do so, citing evidence that the chemical is a probable carcinogen and that the long-term health effects represented crucial information.  He also pointed out that the presence of formaldehyde could mark the presence of other toxic chemicals as well, such as toluene or other solvents known or suspected to cause cancer.  After discovering that other ATSDR staff had supplied partial and misleading information to FEMA behind his back, he cried foul.  He has since been removed from his position to become special assistant to ATSDR Director Howard Frumkin, though the reasons for this are clouded by another controversy DeRosa is central to as well, involving his efforts to urge release of an inexplicably delayed ATSDR report on troubling epidemiological data in relation to toxics found in the Great Lakes.  [Sources:  here, here, and here

FEMA is doing its best to claim the high ground and paint an innocent face on its actions, exemplified by one relatively recent news release posted on its website making the blanket statement: 

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does not condone any actions that would prevent an employee or contractor from expressing an opinion about how FEMA has handled the formaldehyde concerns.  The health and safety of residents has been and continues to be our primary concern.  FEMA has not and will not attempt to, nor will it condone any effort to, suppress or inappropriately influence any report from the Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) or any report from any agency, including any related to the effects of formaldehyde on residents in its direct housing program.”

The House Science Committee voiced its strong disapproval in a January 29, 2008 letter to Howard Frumkin, signed by Reps. Brad Miller, chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and Nick Lampson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.  The letter accuses:  “you appear to have been complicit in giving FEMA precisely what they wanted … However what FEMA wanted and what you approved giving them was not the whole truth regarding formaldehyde. It was not based on ‘best science,’ nor did it provide ‘trusted health information’ to the Katrina survivors.”  Investigations are also being conducted by the House Committee on Homeland Security, as well as in the Senate, through the efforts of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) , chair of the Disaster Recovery subcommittee of Senate Homeland Security.  [see here

On February 14, 2008 Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, and FEMA Director Paulison publicly announced that everyone living in these trailers should evacuate them as soon as possible, and residents of trailers located in trailer parks are being told they must be out by June 1 of this year, before the start of hurricane season. 

FEMA estimates that 35,000 trailers (a number that is slowly decreasing now) are still occupied in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas; many more are being occupied elsewhere in the country as a result of other natural disasters.  Relocating everyone will be burdensome and slow.  Neither Paulison nor Gerberding had bothered to check in with government officials closest to the problem:  New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wrote a sharp letter to President Bush on February 22, informing him that there was simply not enough housing to accommodate the people now living in travel trailers provided by FEMA, and that it would cause a “second great displacement.” 

On March 1, 2008, FEMA finally agreed to honor requests from hurricane victims to test the trailers at the rate of about 200 housing units a week.  On March 4 the Washington Post reported that federal officials had determined which manufacturers sold trailers with the highest levels of formaldehyde:  Gulfstream, Keystone, Pilgrim and Forest River. 
We contend that FEMA officials could and should have known that high formaldehyde levels in travel trailers were likely to present a serious problem.  Three basic facts were known or knowable, long before FEMA’s decision to rely on these trailers.

1)  Formaldehyde has long been recognized as a colorless gas that acts as a strong human irritant, causing itching and burning eyes, difficulty breathing, nosebleeds, wheezing and coughing, and other symptoms.  In 1987, the US EPA determined that formaldehyde is a probable cause of cancer in humans, a finding more recently corroborated by the World Health Organization in 2004.  [see here]

2)  Formaldehyde is widely used as a wood preservative (such as in treated wood and particle board) and other building materials, construction glues, and in decorative household items such as carpets and drapes – and is even more heavily used in China than in the US, where many of the components to these trailers are now being manufactured;

3)  “Travel trailers” are exempt from current Housing and Urban Development regulations for indoor concentrations of formaldehyde in manufactured housing.  (Sen. Hillary Clinton introduced a bill (S. 2659) on February 25 this year that would extend the HUD standards for formaldehyde to all trailers provided by FEMA.  [see here]

Now the issue has gone to court.  A large number of individual lawsuits filed last fall have now been grouped into one major class action lawsuit, with seven top attorneys, naming FEMA as well as 60 trailer manufacturers as the defendants).  [see here and here]

This debacle is far from over and will undoubtedly drag out over the coming months and years.  Hastily manufactured housing, not properly regulated, is obviously not the best solution for disaster recovery and response, but better solutions are not readily available.  The problem of providing safe and affordable housing for future victims of extreme weather events deserves much better federal attention and support than it currently receiving. 

Climate Science Watch, as part of its National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative, will be pushing for an in-depth case study of how to improve our ability to provide shelter for the displaced – and to put systems in place that prevent this sort of widespread negligence and corruption by federal officials who are supposed to be using taxpayer dollars to help and protect us, not to poison and ignore us.

Addendum: On March 26 Chemical & Engineering news reported that the Sierra Club and about 20 other groups have petitioned EPA to adopt a standard recently finalized by California’s Air Resources Board and set a national standard limiting the amount of formaldehyde that can be released by wood products used in homes. 

Reference Note:  Indoor air standards for formaldehyde are complex and set by multiple federal agencies. The US EPA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends not exceeding exposure over 0.1 ppm (parts per million) over a 15- minute period.  For workplace conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets a standard of 0.75 ppm for any 8-hour period.  The ATSDR, in partnership with the EPA, has determined that levels of 0.04 ppm for 1 to 14 days should not be exceeded.  California has adopted the strictest standard so far in the world: 0.0145 ppm.  Reported levels detected in the trailers have ranged from 3 ppb (0.003 ppm) to 590 ppb (0.59 ppm), with a reported average of 77 ppb (0.077 ppm).  [see here]

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