FEMA blamed for slow response to toxic trailer problem

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The troubles caused by toxic FEMA trailers took too long to respond to.  That's the finding in a report just issued by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

The 79 page report chides FEMA for not displaying a degree of urgency in reacting to reported formaldehyde problems.  It determined that despite multiple health complaints from gulf coast hurricane victims, FEMA took too long to implement a formaldehyde testing program.

The OIG report acknowledged it was a story WLOX aired on March 16, 2006 which first alerted the public to a potential formaldehyde problem in FEMA trailers.  In that story, Paul Stewart and his wife believed they were getting sick because their temporary trailer was toxic.

"When we first moved in here we had significant symptoms," Stewart told WLOX that day.  "We had burning eyes burning nose scratchy throats, nasal headaches that type of thing."

The report said the first indications of possible formaldehyde in FEMA trailers actually surfaced in October, 2005 -- less than two months after Katrina, and five months before the Stewarts made their health concerns public.

Right after the Stewarts complained, the Sierra Club issued its own warning about toxic trailers.  Yet, according to the report, FEMA didn't take the matter seriously, waiting until the winter of 2007 before it finally tested occupied trailers.

In the report that was just released, Inspector General Richard Skinner found that delay to be unacceptable.  FEMA "did not take sufficiently prompt and effective action to determine the extent of the formaldehyde problem," the inspector general wrote.

Skinner said initial testing of occupied trailers "took far longer than necessary."

And he called the toxic trailers, "a problem that could pose a significant health risk to people who were relying on FEMA's program."

In FEMA's defense, Skinner wrote that the agency and the CDC have undertaken significant efforts remedy the formaldehyde problem in future emergency housing.

FEMA responded to the report through spokesman Clark Stevens.  He said the agency agreed with the findings.  He also pointed out that FEMA had made great progress in ensuring that future trailers and mobile homes are safe.

Stevens e-mailed the following statement to WLOX News.

"FEMA's highest priority is the health and safety of the disaster survivors we serve and the employees and contractors who fulfill FEMA's housing mission.  FEMA agrees with the Inspector General's findings and has already made great progress in developing policies and actions, such as air quality standards, to address concerns associated with formaldehyde emissions in FEMA housing. As a result, FEMA and our partners are far better positioned to respond to the temporary housing needs of disaster survivors than we were several years ago.

"FEMA has re-affirmed our commitment to limit formaldehyde in the National Disaster Housing Strategy and, most recently, in the 2009 Disaster Housing Plan. We recognize that there is still work to be done, and FEMA will take all appropriate and necessary steps as we continue to develop policies and guidance moving forward. "

©2009 WLOX. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.