THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY Management Agency (FEMA) is receiving harsh criticism for its slow response to evidence that trailers used to house Gulf Coast hurricane victims are contaminated with high levels of formaldehyde, an industrial chemical classified by the government as a probable carcinogen.
"FEMA first received complaints about health problems and high formaldehyde levels nearly two years ago," says Rep. Gene Taylor (D- Miss.). "If FEMA would have taken the complaints seriously from the very beginning, this issue could have been resolved already."
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison announced on Feb. 14 that the agency would rush to find new temporary housing for about 38,000 families who have been living in the government-issued trailers since shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region in 2005.
The agency was forced to act after the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) discovered that formaldehyde fumes from hundreds of trailers were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most homes.
CDC recently tested 519 trailers and found average levels of formaldehyde of about 77 ppb, much higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration commonly seen in modern homes. U.S. health officials say long-term exposure to high levels of the chemical can be linked to increased risks of respiratory illness and cancer.
"Since these levels were found in December and January, and we know that higher temperatures can cause formaldehyde levels to go up, we think it's wise for people to be relocated before the hot weather arrives in summer," says CDC Director Julie Gerberding.
Formaldehyde, a preservative used for embalming, is also used in composite-wood and particle-board construction materials. Under hot, humid conditions it can leak into the air.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, says her panel will launch an investigation into the government's disaster-housing strategies. "This is such gross incompetence. It's been deny, delay, and ignore for two years. The disaster housing program is a disaster itself," she declares.