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The Erin Brockovich of Formaldehyde 

Becky Gillette does not have big hair, big earrings or big cleavage. But in most other ways, she is the Erin Brockovich of the scandal surrounding formaldehyde in FEMA trailers.

A freelance writer and photographer, Gillette, 52, is the director of the Sierra Club's national formaldehyde campaign, a project she founded when reports of illnesses among FEMA trailer residents first surfaced.

In the early winter of 2006, a Sierra Club member in Bay St. Louis, Miss., tested his trailer for formaldehyde in an attempt to find the cause of the respiratory illnesses he, his wife and their pet bird were suffering. When the test showed a formaldehyde level of .22 parts per million, nearly 13 times that found in the average home, he called Gillette, who at the time was chair of the Mississippi Sierra Club. She already had heard from other members about nosebleeds, breathing problems, burning eyes, rashes and other symptoms trailer occupants had developed.

Gillette convinced the Sierra Club's national office to give her the money to order dozens of test kits and have them analyzed. 'At the time, we thought there might be one brand of trailer that had high formaldehyde," Gillette says. 'We had no idea how widespread it would be or how big it would become."

The results from the first tests were shocking: formaldehyde concentrations in 94 percent of the 31 trailers she tested in Mississippi were above .10 ppm, the level at which EPA says negative health effects are common. This was more than 12 times the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) minimum risk level for chronic exposure. In the 52 trailers tested in Louisiana and Alabama, 83 percent were above .10 ppm.

Gillette began knocking on FEMA's doors, trying to persuade the agency to do its own testing and come up with a plan to get people out of the toxic trailers. Some of FEMA's Gulf Coast staff wanted the agency to take action right after Gillette's first tests were made public. But in Washington, FEMA's top priority was to preserve its ability to deny that the trailers were toxic.

'Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK," one lawyer in the Office of General Counsel ordered FEMA's Gulf Coast staff. The OK to test never came.

Formaldehyde soon took over Becky Gillette's life. She spent her days testing trailers and her nights talking on the phone with sick and worried trailer residents — all as an unpaid volunteer. 'I was waking up in the middle of night thinking about the people I had talked to that day about formaldehyde, like Desiree Collins in Renaissance Village ('The Formaldehyde Cover-Up," News & Views, July 31, 2007). I called Desiree and Earl Collins to give them their test results. Desiree was just coughing her lungs out. They had no other place to go. In New Orleans, so many people lost their homes, there were no relatives or friends to stay with. Desiree died just a few days later."

By the summer of 2007, Gillette had grown increasingly disillusioned by the lack of federal response to her groundbreaking work on formaldehyde in the trailers. After 13 years on the Gulf Coast, she decided to move. 'I couldn't spend my whole life being bitter," she says.

Five months ago, she relocated to Eureka Springs, Ark., the Santa Fe of the Ozarks, but she could not leave formaldehyde behind. Tornadoes struck Arkansas on Feb. 5, and FEMA is sending victims temporary housing — unused mobile homes ordered for Katrina and Rita evacuees.

Gillette remains the Sierra Club's expert on formaldehyde, finally paid part time, just as the group has petitioned the EPA to adopt federal air standards for formaldehyde that mirror California's new limits. The California standards are projected to cut formaldehyde emissions from building materials by 50 to 75 percent, a move believed to carry only a minimal cost. 'So the bigger picture here is that we need much better formaldehyde regulations and standards," Gillette says.

That may be the silver lining in the formaldehyde cloud that still hangs over the Gulf Coast.

click to enlarge Becky Gillette spearheaded the fight to have FEMA trailers tested for toxic formaldehyde in Louisiana and Mississippi when she was an unpaid volunteer for the Sierra Club.
  • Becky Gillette spearheaded the fight to have FEMA trailers tested for toxic formaldehyde in Louisiana and Mississippi when she was an unpaid volunteer for the Sierra Club.
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