The Formaldehyde Cover-Up
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As flawed as they were, the FEMA tests did reveal one key fact: By any reasonable standard, an air-conditioned FEMA trailer is likely to contain an unsafe level of formaldehyde. The levels measured in the trailers with the air conditioning running, but without the windows open, were consistently above even the ATSDR's unrealistically high "level of concern." Yet, FEMA's March press release on the tests announced: "Our investigation of formaldehyde and travel trailers indicated that ventilating the units can significantly reduce levels of formaldehyde emissions."

FEMA Administrator David Paulison was asked about formaldehyde when he testified on May 15, 2007, before the House Committee on Homeland Security. "The formaldehyde issue was brought to our attention, and we went out and investigated, and used the EPA and other agencies to do testing," Paulson told Congress. "We've been told formaldehyde does not present a health hazard." On July 19, Rep. Waxman read this statement back to Paulson and asked him if he still stood by it. "We realize, now, we have a problem," Paulison said, but he stopped short of admitting the problem was formaldehyde in the trailers.

Since the hearing, Paulison has announced that tests of occupied trailers would be conducted by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and were scheduled to begin last week. However, when FEMA public information officer James McIntyre was asked how FEMA would decide which trailers to test, when testing would begin, and what would be considered a safe level of formaldehyde, he responded, "These decisions are still under discussion and will not be available."

For the first time, the agency disclosed that "more serious health problems may be caused by extended exposure, including a small but increased risk of some forms of cancer."

FEMA workers began distributing a "fact sheet" on formaldehyde on the weekend of July 21 to residents in the nearly 65,000 FEMA trailers across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. The fact sheet lists common symptoms of formaldehyde exposure—burning eyes, nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, fatigue, headaches—reactions many trailer residents know all too well. For the first time, the agency disclosed that "more serious health problems may be caused by extended exposure, including a small but increased risk of some forms of cancer." The fact sheet gives a number to call for more information and encourages residents experiencing symptoms to seek medical attention.

Leaving aside the fact that the majority of trailer residents are without health insurance, and in the New Orleans area doctors are scare, those who have called the number listed on the sheet have been met with more stonewalling.

Lindsay Huckabee's family has lived in two different FEMA trailers in Kiln, Miss., since December 2005. She testified before Waxman's House committee that her children are regularly covered in blood from nosebleeds and have suffered a variety of serious respiratory ailments. Huckabee herself was pregnant when she moved into the first trailer and began preterm labor, something several pregnant trailer residents have reported. After receiving the new fact sheet, Huckabee called the number to ask what standards would be used to determine if the trailers were safe for families with children. The FEMA staffer taking the call could not answer Huckabee's questions, but offered to transfer her to someone who would give her a survey to see if she qualified to have her trailer tested. "I've already had my trailer tested," she said, adding that she knows it is above the .1 ppm "safe" level.

Walter McCloud, whose eight-member family is packed into in a FEMA trailer in Gulfport, called the number because he was concerned about the nosebleeds and breathing problems his children are experiencing. If testing was going to happen, he wanted his trailer tested. After hearing of the children's health problems, the FEMA representative told McCloud, "It doesn't sound like formaldehyde, sir," and said he did not qualify for the testing.

Earl Shorty called the number, too. He asked for help moving to an apartment. He was transferred several times but always got the same result—no one could get him out of the trailer. Shorty had previously contacted the Sierra Club and asked that the couple's trailer be tested before Desiree's last hospitalization. The result came back .12 ppm. "It's too much," Mary DeVany says of those results, particularly for someone like Desiree, whose immune system was already weakened by chemotherapy.

After Desiree was admitted to a Baton Rouge hospital on June 15, Shorty took FEMA's advice and began looking for an inexpensive apartment in Baton Rouge. He wanted to have a formaldehyde-free home for Desiree when she was released from the hospital. In late June, he found it, a clean place that cost only $261 per month.

Desiree died a week later. She was 47 years old.

Shorty is suing trailer manufacturers as part of a class-action suit filed June 13 by the couple's attorney, Justin Woods. Shorty says money is not his motive. "If I can keep one person from dying and save a life," he says, "my wife will not have died in vain."

Published on July 31, 2007 in the Gambit Weeky. Copyright © 2007 by the Gambit Weekly. All rights reserved.