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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Monday, January 28, 2008

Study Claims FEMA Ignored Toxic Findings




By EILEEN SULLIVAN
January 28, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency manipulated scientific research in order to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in trailers issued to hurricane victims, according to an investigation by congressional Democrats released Monday.

FEMA "ignored, hid and manipulated government research on the potential impact of long-term exposure to formaldehyde" on Katrina and Rita victims now living in FEMA trailers, Democrats on a House Science and Technology subcommittee wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. FEMA is part of the Homeland Security Department.

In a separate letter, lawmakers said the federal health agency that provided guidance to FEMA was "complicit in giving FEMA precisely what they wanted."

Victims living in FEMA trailers have complained of health problems related to formaldehyde, but initial FEMA tests revealed the air quality in the trailers was safe if those trailers were properly ventilated. Formaldehyde is a common preservative found in building materials used in manufactured homes. It can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

FEMA said the health agency's Feb. 1, 2007 advice didn't address long-term health effects, but rather concerned ways to avoid toxic exposure to formaldehyde. "FEMA did not suppress or inappropriately influence any report," said agency spokesman James McIntyre.

The lawmakers are questioning the integrity of research done by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and said they don't trust FEMA to conduct an independent investigation into the toxicity of the formaldehyde in trailers.

The investigation, led by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., found the health agency ignored research from one of its own experts, Christopher De Rosa.

Because the health opinion was completed without appropriate oversight, the results could be misleading, De Rosa wrote in a February 27, 2007 letter to a FEMA attorney that was obtained by the subcommittee.

"Any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk, regardless of duration," De Rosa wrote. "Failure to communicate this issue is possibly misleading and a threat to public health."

In its initial round of testing, FEMA took samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days and compared them with federal standards for short-term exposure, according to the lawmakers. FEMA officials instructed scientists at the health agency to leave out details about long-term exposure in its consultation.

"Honest scientific studies don't start with the conclusion, and then work backwards from there," Miller said in statement.

FEMA is currently testing 500 of the 40,000 trailers, but the lawmakers said they have no confidence in the new testing and sampling procedures.

The test results are due to come out in February and FEMA plans to issue a final report in May.

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6 comments:

James Polk said...

FEMA trailers are unhealthy by design - or lack thereof.

Many have fixed windows, meaning no natural ventilation at all. Some have operable windows, but they're much too small for adequate air circulation.

That's the set-up.

Now, here's the kicker. Materials (such as plastic laminate and carpet) inside the FEMA trailers out-gas formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is toxic to humans and the lack of ventilation ensures greater toxicity.

Ignoring basic design issues in the course of letting the FEMA contracts is the tragic result of ignorance and "just plain being to cheap to consult with a competent designer." Covering up unhealthy conditions for political reasons while hurricane victim's lungs rot away is the real crime.

Ana Maria said...

Thanks for a very informative comment!

geneo said...

Yes, very useful information. It's going into my files. I'm going to try and do some real stories on this and get at some of this stuff that's not being adequately reported.

A.M., I posted some stuff tonite that you might want to look at. :)

geneo said...

James,

A couple of questions: Where can I find information to back that up. I'm not doubting you. I want to be sure that when I say it no one can argue. If it's online, a link would be appreciated.

Also, do you know how long this has been a well-known fact? I'm interested in knowing how long this has been known and comparing to the dates these trailers were manufactured and purchased.

James Polk said...

geneo,

Here's a very informative article written in July of '06 about the issue.

msnbc.msn.com/id/14011193/from/ET/#storyContinued

Thanks to monumental efforts by the Sierra Club (and in particular Gulf Coast environmentalist Becky Gillette), the Administration was forced to acknowledge and deal with the issue.

The inhabitants knew early on.

Complaints were many. Respiratory problems became common-place.

But FEMA, because of politics and/or incompetency, turned a deaf ear.

I'll contact Becky and see if she wants to make herself available for comment - she's the expert.

Becky has since moved on to Eureka Springs, Arkansas where there are many like-minded friends of the environment. After years of heavy-lifting as an environmental activist in Mississippi, she decided to turn the page, change the scenery. Too bad for Mississippi. She tells me she's happy and healthy in her new environs.

There's plenty of information out there. Call the Gulf Coast chapter of the Sierra Club and I'm sure they can supply you with chapter and verse.

In answer to your second question, it is and has been a well-know fact that certain products out-gas toxins. This is an issue that can and should be addressed in the planning and procurement stage.

Even in an emergency, when time is of the essence, procurement documents can specify succinctly the maximum level of toxicity allowed and guidelines for ventilation.

Testing is quick and easy with current technology and when performed by trained, qualified professionals.

The federal government should not accept or pay for products that poison the very people they are charged with helping.

For less than the cost of one day in Iraq, the federal government could fund a pro-active research and development arm of FEMA each year with our best and most competent professionals and we can very easily get out in front of this and give our citizens the protection that makes a real difference in their lives, the protection they deserve, the protection we pay taxes for.

Its all about priorities - this didn't need to be a problem.

geneo said...

james,

Thanks, James. I appreciate the info.