Gulf Watch: FEMA clueless about toxic trailer warnings?

At a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on hurricane readiness held earlier this month, Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison to address complaints that trailers housing Katrina and Rita survivors have dangerous levels of formaldehyde, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reports:

Paulison said he was unaware the trailers posed any health threats.

So apparently Paulison wasn't paying attention when Sierra Club issued a warning a year ago in the form of a fact sheet titled "Toxic Trailers?: Tests reveal high formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers." Samples taken by the environmental advocacy group found that 83 percent of FEMA trailers tested in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi had levels of the chemical that exceeded recommended limits, with some of the trailers showing levels three times the safe limit.

Formaldehyde is emitted as vapors from insulating foams, adhesives used in wood products and carpeting, and some paints and other coating materials. Levels that surpass recommended limits can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes and cause headaches, sore throats and breathing problems. In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has linked formaldehyde exposure to nasopharyngeal cancer.

But wait -- maybe Paulison was actually paying attention after all but simply thinks the problem is not his agency's. The paper goes on to say:

After the hearing, Paulison told reporters he was aware some trailers and mobile homes have high levels of formaldehyde gas. But he said it is the responsibility of hurricane victims to rid themselves of the danger.

"We've told people they can air those trailers out," Paulison said.

If only it were so easy. In fact, Becky Gillette, vice chair of the Sierra Club's Mississippi chapter, says tests found elevated formaldehyde levels in trailers that were 20 months old and have been aired out.

Besides ventilation, another technique recommended for reducing formaldehyde off-gassing is to seal the surfaces of the formaldehyde-containing products that are not already laminated or coated, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. That was also one of the recommendations offered by the Sierra Club -- but evidently not acted upon by FEMA.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, once again has requested FEMA documents regarding the trailers. He first raised concerns and asked FEMA for more information about formaldehyde levels last August but told the paper he's received little response.

FEMA slow to respond to a crisis? Please, Mr. Paulison, tell us it isn't so.

(Photo of FEMA trailer in New Orleans' 9th Ward by Marvin Nauman for FEMA.)