The Formaldehyde Cover-Up
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Nevertheless, members of FEMA's Baton Rouge Transitional Recovery Office boldly organized a teleconference call with 28 staffers at six federal agencies to examine questions raised by the St. Tammany man's death. The group resolved to take six actions:

  • determine the cause of the man's death;
  • sample the air in his trailer for formaldehyde;
  • request that the Consumer Product Safety Commission "vet FEMA trailers against the industry standard";
  • identify an independent, nongovernmental agency to conduct tests of indoor air quality in occupied trailers;
  • evaluate FEMA policy on formaldehyde; and
  • ask the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to compose a fact sheet on formaldehyde for local distribution, particularly in St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes.

By the next day, FEMA's general counsel had apparently stopped all but one of these actions. Only the last item—the DHH fact sheet on formaldehyde—was actually implemented, and it ultimately was less about formaldehyde than about ventilating trailers. At a minimum, however, it disclosed for the first time that the air inside FEMA trailers may be contaminated.

In plain English, FEMA and the scientists it hired to test the trailers felt there was no need for concern about formaldehyde in the trailers until people, especially children and the elderly, literally could no longer breathe.

Meanwhile, FEMA attorney Adrian Sevier fired off an email to FEMA participants in the conference call chastising them for initiating the discussion and warning, "To be moving forward with plans and consulting with other agencies prior to vetting this internally could seriously undermine the Agency's position in litigation and that is not acceptable." The only result of the conference call appears to be a warning notice about formaldehyde that FEMA began distributing to some trailer residents last July and August.

While FEMA attorneys were trying to keep a lid on any talk of formaldehyde problems in the trailers, an infant died in a trailer in Texas—in August 2006. The dead child's parents blamed the death on formaldehyde, and efforts by FEMA staff in Texas to get trailers in that state tested were blocked. "I talked to Ed Laundy in Texas ... and explained ... since there are no standards, testing is meaningless," a FEMA staff member in Louisiana wrote in a memo.

A month earlier, in July 2006, FEMA was already feeling some heat from Reps. Waxman and Melancon. The agency had begun investigating, very quietly, the idea of testing unoccupied trailers in order to achieve its desired result—minimizing the formaldehyde issue. FEMA's initial discussions with EPA and CDC were not encouraging. EPA staffers told FEMA that their preliminary research indicated that the safe level of formaldehyde in trailers would likely be much lower than FEMA anticipated. In a July 11, 2006, memo to FEMA staff about the testing, FEMA Individual Assistance Housing Supervisor Gail Haubrich wrote that "the levels we find after testing may well be more than 100 times higher" than the safe level—"even after ventilating the trailers." One EPA scientist suggested that half the trailers should be tested after they had been closed up for two weeks, and half should have the air conditioning on for two weeks and then be tested. Most others who participated in those discussions agreed.

Once again, however, a FEMA attorney intervened. Attorney Jill Igert wrote to staff in a July 22, 2006, email that there had been a "shift in purpose" for the testing. The testing method had been revised. Half the trailers would be tested with the air conditioning running and with static vents open, simulating actual living conditions in the trailers during much of the year in the Gulf States. A second group would be tested with all windows and vents open continuously, and these trailers would be aired out and have exhaust fans running 12 hours before the testing began. Using this method, 96 unoccupied trailers at FEMA's Baton Rouge staging area were tested in September and October 2006.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was given the task of analyzing FEMA's test results. Dr. Thad Godish, professor of Environmental Management at Ball State University and the man who wrote the textbook, Indoor Air Pollution Control, was one of the first to review the ATSDR report on the tests. Godish was stunned by the testing methodology.

"Test results from air sampling conducted with windows and/or doors open are meaningless," he wrote. Even more curious, when analyzing the results, he found that the agency used .3 ppm of formaldehyde in air as its "level of concern" for the trailers. Yet, ATSDR already had an established limit for chronic exposure to formaldehyde in the air—no higher than .008 parts per million—nearly 40 times lower than the yardstick it used for evaluating FEMA trailers. Buried in ATSDR's report is their logic for choosing the much higher "level of concern"—it is the point at which "narrowing of the bronchi" occurs in a human lung exposed to formaldehyde. In plain English, FEMA and the scientists it hired to test the trailers felt there was no need for concern about formaldehyde in the trailers until people, especially children and the elderly, literally could no longer breathe.

"To choose that level as their 'level of concern' is inexplicable," says Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist who has studied formaldehyde extensively and worked on FEMA trailer cases as a consultant for the Sierra Club. "It's an ethical breach." In DeVany's opinion, "Anyone should be evacuated if they find levels of formaldehyde in their trailer above .05, because all of us [industrial scientists] would agree that people should not be living in levels this high."