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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sorry Katrina Destroyed your House...Can We Offer you a Carcinogenic Trailer?

In a borderline unbelievable turn of events, Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee actually agree on something! (I'll give you a minute to sit down). What is it that they are mutually infuriated about? Dangerous levels of potentially carcinogenic formaldehyde in FEMA trailers occupied by victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In hearings today before the HOGRC it came to light that FEMA had received hundreds of complaints from trailer residents who had either smelled formaldehyde in their homes or had experienced mysterious medical symptoms that they thought might be the result of their interim living situation.

FEMA told the residents to simply "air out" their trailers (hard to do in Louisiana in the summer) and even went so far as to test the formaldehyde levels in one home. The test of the one home they said, showed there was "no ongoing risk."

In today's hearing however, lawmakers were able to get to the root of FEMA's decision to brush aside the problem...their lawyers told them to. In one document, a FEMA lawyer directed the agency to "not initiate any testing until we give the OK. ... Once you get results ... the clock is running on our duty to respond to them." (I'll help you read between the lines "put off testing these people's homes for a potentially dangerous chemical, that may or may not cause cancer, because once the tests show you have a problem, you'll have to clean it up. So buy us some time! Just ignore it.") And so they did. They let people who had already lost everything live in trailers that they knew might be making them sick.

I know, you are thinking "But they tested that one and everything was fine!" Nope, they tested that one and TOLD everyone everything was fine. In reality, the one home they tested (out of hundreds of complaints) had a formaldehyde level of 1.2 parts per million.

Now, FEMA argues that it didn't do anything about the formaldehyde complaints because there is no "concrete agreement" on what level of formaldehyde exposure should be considered dangerous. This is true, different groups have different standards for "dangerous", but unfortunately for FEMA, ALL of those numbers are below 1.2 parts per million. In fact, according to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a mere .016 parts per million is the point where they suggest workers with 8 hour-a-day exposure should start wearing a respirator. Bucket can check my math, but I'm pretty sure that the formaldehyde level in the one home they bothered to test is 75 times higher than the point where they tell workers with 8 hour-a-day exposure to stop breathing the air.

This story reminds me of that Julia Roberts movie where she finds out that the evil corporation has been poisoning the water and giving everyone cancer. Well, that's what it would remind me of if at the end of the movie the evil corporation took over the world. Even more fun to think about is the fact that you paid for those trailers folks! I think I hear Canada calling.



Blogger (A Little) Gris Gris said...

Cost benefit analysis is a bitch. This is a great example of why I don't believe in running any level of government as a business. Right and wrong should rule in the public sector and the reasonable person standard should trump money.

By the by, have you seen these:


7:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

While FEMA drags its feet, NASA may have a stop-gap;
Philodendrons, Pothoses and Spider Plants
have been shown to remove formaldehyde from the air. The article also mentions a NEJM paper that offers scientific evidence that implies FEMA's big "air it out" idea is bogus.

1:00 PM


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