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More FEMA Failures – Toxic Trailers

February 14, 2008

Today, the CDC announced “preliminary” findings of problematic formaldehyde levels in some of the trailers provided to hurricane victims. They note that the average level was 77 parts per billion (ppb), ranging from 3-590 ppb. Meanwhile, OSHA, in defining acceptable workplace exposure to the chemical, orders employers to ensure that “assure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde which exceeds 0.75 ppb.” For context with regards to levels of formaldehyde in homes, the EPA says that “Average concentrations in older homes without UFFI [a kind of foam insulation] are generally well below 0.1 ppm. In homes with significant amounts of new pressed wood products, levels can be greater than 0.3 ppm.”

As the CDC notes, “From December 21, 2007, to January 23, 2008, CDC conducted testing to assess levels of formaldehyde in occupied FEMA-supplied travel trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi.” As you can see from that quote, it took one month for the testing to take place. Why is that important? Because the Washington Post notes that “The findings cap nearly two years of internal government deliberation over the housing of hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors in the trailers, and come 23 months after FEMA first received reports of health problems and test results showing formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold.” In fact, we’ve actually talked about this before – in July 2007 I posted about a previous Washington Post report which noted that a FEMA lawyer instructed the agency not to perform any tests until further notice, as “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.” Another lawyer allegedly reported that testing of a trailer in which a man died after complaining of formaldehyde fumes should not be done without their lawyers’ approval because it “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation. These types of statements may help to answer the question, “What took so long?” It’s not as though there was no known method of testing formaldehyde levels, and indeed testing only took a month once it actually happened.

Meanwhile, formaldehyde can cause eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation and respiratory distress and asthmatic reactions, at levels lower than those found in the trailers on average. Oh, and formaldehyde is known to cause cancers in animals, and there is sufficient evidence such that it is thought to be very likely to cause cancer in humans. This “helpful” brochure for trailer residents, which notes these possible problems, suggests spending as much time as possible outside and keeping the trailers clean. Hey, your home could be poisonous, open a window, make sure you’re not dirty! Lovely.

Remember when I said that I vote pro-choice because I do not trust my government?

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