Subcommittee Investigates FEMA’s Toxic Trailers
(Washington, DC) The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight today examined how and why the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), failed to protect the public’s health after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The agency failed to translate scientific findings and facts into appropriate public health actions which would have resulted in properly informing and warning tens of thousands of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita survivors living in FEMA-provided trailers and mobile homes of the potential health risks they faced. Instead of pushing to have the residents removed immediately, the agency did virtually nothing.
The hearing examined the direct involvement of the Director and Deputy Director of ATSDR in reviewing, vetting and approving the release of the agency’s February 2007 Health Consultation on formaldehyde which was scientifically unsound and quickly dismissed by the agency’s chief toxicologist after it had been forwarded to FEMA. Dr. Christopher De Rosa, ATSDR’s chief toxicologist and then-Director of the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, immediately drafted a swift, sharp letter to FEMA pointing out many of the scientific faults with the report and said to release it as it was would be "perhaps misleading."
"In almost every respect ATSDR failed to fulfill its mission to protect the public from exposure to formaldehyde at levels known to cause ill-health effects," said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). "The agency’s handling of this issue and their inability to correct it was the result of a collapse of senior management and leadership."
The bottom line is that ATSDR failed to issue a scientifically sound report nor to act to correct the record when it was brought to their attention that the report was significantly flawed. And the result of that failure and the passivity of the agency to correct those issues was that thousands of Americans stuck in trailers since the storms of 2005 were left in harm’s way for a year longer than necessary.
"The people in these trailers include the most vulnerable among us—children, the elderly, the handicapped. Many of these are people who were really stuck in the trailers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Children and babies breath faster than adults and are less able to process formaldehyde so it builds up in their bodies faster than in adults," added full Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). "These are the same populations that you might expect to be most sensitive to formaldehyde—lower levels of exposure triggering stronger health reactions. These are the very segments of the public that we most expect the government to act to protect."
ATSDR’s failures were not purely theoretical. They had real-world consequences for tens of thousands of Americans who had survived Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and were living in FEMA-provided trailers. The Health Consultation on FEMA trailers was released to FEMA on February 1, 2007. In February of 2007, the CDC’s position was that formaldehyde levels in trailers would be "below levels of concern" so long as the doors and windows were left open to air out the trailers. Further, the report was utterly silent on long-term risks associated with continuous exposure to formaldehyde.
"Think back to when you were a child and sick. The safest place to be was at home in
bed. But here we have a situation where the government has provided families with homes that are making children sick," said Chairman Miller. "Where do those children go to be safe? Who do their families turn to for help?"
The following witnesses testified before the Subcommittee today: Dr. Heidi Sinclair, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Louisiana State University, Medical Director, Baton Rouge Children's Health Program; Mrs. Lindsay Huckabee, Resident of FEMA-provided mobile home in Kiln, Mississippi from October 2005-to-present, along with her husband and five children; Ms. Becky Gillette, Formaldehyde Campaign Director, Sierra Club Gulf Coast Environmental Restoration Task Force; Dr. Christopher DeRosa, Former Director, Division of Toxicology and Environment Medicine, ATSDR; Dr. Meryl Karol, Professor Emerita, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Environmental & Occupational Health; Dr. Howard Frumkin, Director, ATSDR and National Center for Environmental Health, (NCEH); Dr. Tom Sinks, Deputy Director, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and National Center for Environmental Health, (NCEH); Vice Admiral (ret.) Harvey E. Johnson, Jr., Deputy Administrator, FEMA.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. Less than one month later on September 24, 2005 Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast. These hurricanes left tens of thousands of individuals and families homeless. In response, FEMA provided more than 140,000 mobile homes and travel trailers known as temporary housing units, to individuals and families across the Gulf Coast, but the potential threat of exposure to high levels of formaldehyde from this housing was soon recognized by at least some federal agencies. High levels of formaldehyde in the manufactured homes industry was no secret. Several health studies in the 1980s documented adverse health effects from individuals living in travel trailers and mobile homes. By October 2005, concerned about the health consequences of formaldehyde exposures to FEMA workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began testing for formaldehyde in FEMA temporary housing staging areas and discovered high levels of formaldehyde. But no agencies conducted testing on the actual trailers families and individuals would be living in for extended periods of time.