The Formaldehyde Cover-Up
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Formaldehyde is an extremely irritating chemical, classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It is used widely in pressed wood products, particleboard, plywood, fabrics and other items, many of which were used to fabricate FEMA trailers. Scientists have known for decades that high levels of formaldehyde are dangerous and that even low levels can cause respiratory distress and exacerbate underlying chronic conditions.

The U.S. has set no indoor air standard for formaldehyde, but a variety of workplace exposure limits have been adopted. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), for example, recommends that no employee be exposed to air containing formaldehyde at concentrations of .1 parts per million for longer than 15 minutes. This is the level at which both NIOSH and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say adverse health effects can occur. For longer exposure, NIOSH recommends an even lower level, .016 ppm, and use of a respirator. Nearly all testing of occupied trailers done by the Sierra Club and trailer residents have revealed levels of formaldehyde above those limits.

The contractor told the Sistrunks their trailer was "very dangerous" and they needed to "vacate without delay."

After Paul and Melody Stewart of Bay St. Louis went to their local television station, WLOX-TV, in March 2006 to complain about high levels of formaldehyde they found by testing the air in their trailer, the Mississippi FEMA staff reacted. James Russo of FEMA wrote his colleagues, saying, "This needs to be fixed today." Another FEMA staffer suggested random testing of the trailers, indicating in an email "the implications are much too large to not take immediate steps to assure the safety of our units." The staff outlined a plan that included asking trailer manufacturers, who netted huge profits from FEMA's trailer program, to conduct random tests on units they had supplied to Mississippi.

Apparently the Mississippi field staff got one occupied trailer tested on April 5, 2006, in Baxterville. The trailer was occupied by Dawn and Carlton Sistrunk and their four-month-old daughter. Dawn Sistrunk was two months pregnant at the time and concerned about the impact formaldehyde might have on her pregnancy. The family had moved into the trailer in February 2006 and immediately experienced burning eyes and feeling ill. After the couple complained to FEMA, the staff contracted Bonner Analytical Testing of Hattiesburg, Miss., to test the Sistrunks' trailer.

The test took eight and a half hours, and by the end even the inspector's eyes were burning. Results showed 1.2 parts per million of formaldehyde in the master bedroom, and 1.2 ppm in the small bedroom. "These data show that both the OSHA and NIOSH limits for formaldehyde were exceeded in this FEMA trailer," the inspector concluded. The contractor told the Sistrunks their trailer was "very dangerous" and they needed to "vacate without delay."

That same day, FEMA's local staff put out a request for bids to test occupied trailers for formaldehyde. Five days later, however, FEMA's lawyers stepped in and halted the process. The House Oversight Committee searched for some evidence that a contract for testing the trailers had been awarded, but found none. In May 2006, a lawsuit against FEMA and trailer manufacturers was filed in federal court in New Orleans. On May 16, 2006, Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesperson, issued the agency line on formaldehyde: "FEMA and industry experts have evaluated the small number of cases where orders [odors] of formaldehyde has been reported, and we are confident that there is no ongoing risk."

Geraldine Cox, an environmental specialist with FEMA's New Orleans field office, remained unconvinced. In an email on May 29, 2006, she wrote to a FEMA colleague: "Do you have actual measurements from the trailers that show the trailers, especially the ones installed by Bechtel (the ones the Sierra Club reported as being the highest levels) are at a safe level?" The question was sent out to FEMA staff in Louisiana and Mississippi. One responded: "HQ made the determination, airing these units out would be the only steps we take."

Several weeks later, a trailer resident in St. Tammany Parish was found dead in his trailer. "He apparently told his neighbor in the past that he was afraid to use his A/C because he thought it would make the formaldehyde worse," a Louisiana FEMA staffer wrote in an email on June 27, 2006. FEMA's Mark Misczak responded, "[W]e need to move past OGC [Office of General Counsel] objections to possible testing, and move forward with our safety notice. I believe this issue is well past the point of 'wait and see.'" But on June 15, 2006, Patrick Preston, a FEMA attorney, had already laid down the law: "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."