When victims of Hurricane Katrina said goodbye to their homes in 2005, they didn’t realize their health might be next. A 2008 examination by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that thousands of trailers purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for those displaced by Katrina emitted levels of formaldehyde high enough to cause coughing, chest tightness, nausea, skin rashes, and other adverse effects. The thousands of American families forced into these temporary homes were being exposed to what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls “a suspected human carcinogen that is linked to nasal cancer and lung cancer.” And according to the committee chairman, California Democrat Henry Waxman, field staff alerted FEMA to the problem, but the agency refused to conduct tests.
A FEMA attorney instructed: “Do not initiate any testing. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond.” FEMA officials feared that authorizing testing would shift the burden of responsibility to the agency itself, according to the oversight committee. Gulf Stream Coach Inc. won $500 million alone in FEMA contracts within days of the storm and quickly began work on 50,000 trailer homes using low quality engineered-wood products manufactured with formaldehyde, according to published reports. One trailer resident informed Gulf Stream by e-mail in March 2006: “It burns my eyes and I am getting headaches every day. I have tried many things, but nothing seems to work.” In response to a request for comment, a FEMA spokeswoman sent a statement that read, “FEMA neither knowingly, nor willingly, purchased manufactured units from dealerships and manufacturers that contained levels of formaldehyde above existing construction standards, nor did FEMA’s specifications encourage non-compliance with such standards.”
According to a July 2008 FEMA release, “Everyone who has called FEMA’s formaldehyde call centers with concerns has been offered an immediate move to a hotel or motel until alternate housing is located,” though it makes no mention of those who have not called the hotline. FEMA officials also say that all future temporary housing units the agency purchases will meet stricter standards, including a requirement that “formaldehyde emission levels must be significantly reduced inside the units;” It’s unclear how well the new standards have worked. Some FEMA trailers used in Iowa following floods in 2008 also contain elevated levels of formaldehyde, according to recent reports, and FEMA is retesting trailers for free at a family’s request.