FEMA downplayed danger of trailers


Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 1:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 1:25 p.m.

WASHINGTON - 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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