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FEMA's Formaldehyde Foibles 

Guest Commentary

The issue of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers has received widespread media attention since Congress investigated complaints about the problem last summer. Formaldehyde-contaminated trailers initially hit the news early last year, when the Mississippi Sierra Club conducted tests on some occupied trailers that revealed unacceptably high levels of the fumes.

Over the past year and a half, FEMA has taken steps -- sort of -- to address the issue, but the problem remains. Last year, after months of foot-dragging, the federal agency finally ordered formaldehyde tests of its own, which confirmed dangerously high levels of the industrial chemical in the temporary shelters. FEMA's response to the revelations was a softly worded advisory to trailer occupants and a promise to move occupants who complained of formaldehyde-exposure symptoms. FEMA's subsequent actions have been less than inspiring.

Since 2006, several lawsuits have been filed pertaining to the toxic chemical, and FEMA is named as a defendant in some of them. The agency has stepped up its efforts to address the danger of formaldehyde exposure -- and possibly attempt to sidestep legal liability -- by halting its program to sell used trailers at auction and by barring FEMA employees from entering unused units. It has relocated some occupants complaining of formaldehyde sickness, and earlier in 2007 it announced plans for a second round of tests, initially scheduled for last September and October.

The tests were postponed until November. FEMA's official explanation for the delay in examining the emerging public health threat was that it had to establish testing protocols. In a December press release about the second round of testing, FEMA asserted that "there are no federal guidelines applicable to [formaldehyde in] residential environments, so a number of experts were consulted to develop an appropriate strategy for protecting occupants' health."

Then, as the November test date approached, the agency postponed the tests again, offering an additional excuse -- that it could not provide sufficient housing for occupants whose trailers may be found to have excessive levels of the chemical. "Housing stock is still limited," FEMA said in a press release, despite assertions in the same release that "all [complaining] households have been offered an immediate move to a hotel or motel."

Is FEMA to be believed in any of this?

The agency's repeated postponement of the tests must be viewed in light of its original position on formaldehyde, taken in June of 2006, when FEMA attorneys sought to downplay the severity of the risk and to disown the issue. This strategy was revealed by a congressional investigation into formaldehyde a year later, in July 2007. When the problems with the chemical first came to light, FEMA's denial of responsibility provided a clear indication that the agency's priorities were geared toward bureaucratic damage control rather than protection of trailer occupants. FEMA's later decision to postpone the tests, like the initial decision to ignore the issue altogether, speaks volumes.

Where FEMA has been lax, others have been attentive. In late 2007, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt of New Orleans ordered FEMA to submit a testing plan by Dec. 17. Engelhardt obviously did not buy FEMA's contrived difficulties with regard to housing trailer occupants.

Despite the court-ordered testing, FEMA has positioned itself to gain some political traction from the next round of testing, because the tests are being conducted in December and January, two of the colder months of the year. The lower heat and humidity of winter could mask the full scope of the problem in trailers that typically show higher levels of formaldehyde emissions during hot, humid coastal summers. If the winter tests fail to prove that trailers have unacceptably high levels of formaldehyde, FEMA officials no doubt will claim that the units are safe after all. Then, when the brutal heat of summer returns, occupants who fall ill from formaldehyde exposure will have no recourse but to suffer the fumes -- or find housing in an overpriced rental market while recuperating from the toxic exposure. Mission accomplished.

Delaying the tests until mid-winter might serve FEMA's legal and political interests, but the agency's reluctance to carry out a second round of tests suggests a more disturbing motive: concealing the possibility that instead of decreasing over time as formaldehyde fumes naturally do, the trailers' contamination has persisted, and in some cases may even have worsened since fall 2006.

Formaldehyde is a water-soluble industrial chemical that emits fumes when wet, but when properly dried and cured, it poses little threat. Heat and moisture reactivate the dried substance and can cause it to emit fumes again, however. If a trailer leaks water during spring and summer rainstorms, occupants may face a higher risk of formaldehyde exposure after the rain stops and the sun heats up the units.

Many occupants report that trailer leakage is a common problem. (Check out this Youtube clip from a Kenner trailer occupant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-Fy7c_V-zs). It has been documented that many FEMA contractors who set up the temporary housing units lacked experience with travel trailers, particularly the propane systems that power many RV appliances. If contractor ignorance extends to the installation of trailer bodies themselves, then these contractors may be partially responsible for the leaks and the subsequent spike in formaldehyde levels.

Trailers like the ones bought by FEMA are not designed to be raised off the ground, yet throughout hurricane-stricken areas, they are blocked up 3 feet high or more, lifted into place with scissor jacks and mounted on cinder blocks. Raising an RV that high can bend the frame and damage the structural integrity of the trailer, causing walls to buckle, water lines to loosen or break, and roofs to fail. Scissor jack instructions commonly warn consumers of such risks. One manufacturer's instruction sheet reads, "trailers are not designed to be lifted off the ground" and further warns, "Raising the corners or extreme ends of the trailer to excessive heights can cause damage to the trailer." Despite this readily available information, many contractors raised trailers so high that outer wall damage can be detected with the naked eye.

Once the integrity of the outer shell is compromised, and if they are not properly caulked to alleviate the problem, rain can easily leak into a raised trailer. Even if the unit doesn't leak, inexperienced installers can inadvertently leave water lines loose or crimp hoses, which can lead to leaks inside the walls of a trailer. Wet construction materials will then break down, causing mold to grow inside the walls. Formaldehyde-treated wood products can then emit toxic fumes all over again.

FEMA's reluctance to be forthright about the dangers of formaldehyde and its slipshod scrutiny of trailer contractors' installation methods should sound an alarm. If this is the agency that Gulf Coast residents are supposed to rely on when disaster strikes, we may be in for more nasty surprises after the next catastrophe.

Matt Robinson is a freelance journalist who recently relocated from New Orleans to Florida. He previously wrote for the retired Web site bloggingneworleans.com.

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