FEMA’s Valentine Message: Oops, We’ve Been Poisoning You

February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day from FEMA

Happy Valentine’s Day from the good folks at FEMA. Remember the trailers they provided to about 144,000 Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita victims? (No, not the acres of FEMA trailers that sat empty and unused in Arkansas fields, while FEMA paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in storage fees; that’s a different story.) Surprise! The trailers FEMA did supply to hurricane victims are toxic. They give the term “trailer trash” new meaning. The trailers contain high levels of formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — and are poisoning people, especially the elderly and the very young. About 40,000 people still live in FEMA hovels trailers.

FEMA held a news conference today, in conjunction with the CDC, urging people to move out of the trailers as soon as possible. “But where?” asked Sean Callebs of CNN, as he reported from New Orleans this morning. “There’s no affordable housing here in New Orleans.”

FEMA Trailer in the Broadmoor Neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana

Actually, it turns out that FEMA’s known about the formaldehyde problem since late 2005, just a few months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. People living in the trailers began to complain of nosebleeds and headaches. Watering, burning eyes and breathing problems have also been reported in asthmatics and others sensitive to airborne pollutants. In fact, people living in FEMA trailers speak of having a “Katrina cough.” Last May, FEMA blew off reports by environmentalists which claimed that the trailers created serious health risks. In fact, FEMA said that the mobile homes conformed to industry standards. Residents didn’t buy that story and, last August, about 1,000 Louisiana families asked FEMA to relocate them. In November, hurricane victims and their lawyers asked a federal judge to require FEMA to test the trailers for hazardous fumes.

Finally the CDC, working with FEMA, hired a contractor, Bureau Veritas North America, to test air samples from 79 mobile homes, 82 park trailers and 358 travel trailers. The samples were collected from 21 December through 23 January. According to CDC environmental hazards spokesperson Mike McGeehin, the test results, which came back last week, showed that formaldehyde fumes in the trailers are at least five times the level in modern homes and, in some cases, the formaldehyde fume levels were almost 40 times the normal exposure levels. The smaller the trailer (such as travel trailers), the higher the formaldehyde concentrations were. The higher the temperatures, the more formaldehyde gas levels climb in the heat. While there are no federal standards regarding formaldehyde levels in homes and the EPA only classifies formaldehyde as a “probable” carcinogen, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the chemical as a carcinogen.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC Director

In an afternoon news conference, CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said that the CDC will start a registry of people who are or have lived in the toxic trailers. She offered these cheery tips to the poisoned:

  • “Improve the ventilation.”
  • “It’s really important that people not smoke in their trailer.”
  • There will be an “acceleration of relocation.”
  • If residents have further questions, they can call the CDC hotline. (You’re on your own figuring out what the phone number is; it wasn’t provided during the news conference.

Gerberding then said that she hoped that by next Valentine’s Day, people could be safely back in their homes, as “home is where the heart is.”

R. David Paulison, FEMA Director

FEMA yesterday urged trailer residents to seek safer housing and at today’s news conference, R. David Paulison, FEMA director, said that the agency will be “aggressive” in its relocation of dispossessed hurricane victims. Paulison said that weary trailer occupants would be relocated to apartments or “other alternative housing,” preferably convenient to schools and work. Failing that, the trailer inhabitants will be relocated to hotels and motels.

Paulison also said that the CDC and FEMA will go door-to-door, hand delivering formaldehyde test results to trailer occupants and advising them of “housing alternatives.” Residents will also be given information on how to contact FEMA about relocation, since that has worked so well in the past for Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims. Paulison also said that FEMA will coordinate with the CDC to provide health information to trailer occupants, so that they fully understand the health risks they might have incurred, courtesy of the government.

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr

As Callebs noted on TV: “They’ve cut corners. They’ve buried the truth.” Meanwhile, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr (R) wondered on CNN why the formaldehyde information hadn’t been publicized earlier, questioning whether fear of embarassment or fear of legal liability had kept FEMA quiet for so long. At the online edition of The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, comments ranged from “Get ready for about 100,000 lawsuits to be filed” to “Didn’t FEMA already say this wasn’t an issue? The federal government wouldn’t lie to us, would they?”


Read more Hurricane Katrina news. Or, if you’d like something more lighthearted for Valentine’s Day, see a charming c. 1907 Valentine.

Photo credit: Alex Brandon / AP

Copyright ©2008 pajamadeen.com

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