WASHINGTON (AP) - Companies that make recreational vehicles should not be blamed for high levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, according to a report by House Republicans. The partisan analysis instead points the finger at the federal government for not having standards for safe levels of formaldehyde before Hurricane Katrina victims lived in the trailers.
"Blaming trailer manufacturers for doing what was expected of them would be misplaced and ineffective," according to the report by the Republican staff on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee is holding a hearing Wednesday when the heads of four major travel trailer manufacturers will testify.
The report also faults the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency for controversial testing that led to misleading results about the formaldehyde exposure. Last year, scientists tested hundreds of FEMA trailers and found potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. Complaints began popping up shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with residents of FEMA-issued trailers reporting frequent headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments. FEMA did not immediately respond to requests for comment. "Trailer manufacturers were pushed to their limits and did their best to help ill-prepared and disjointed government agencies respond to the disaster," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking republican on the House Oversight committee.
But Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing hundreds of current and former trailer occupants who are suing dozens of trailer manufacturers, said it's laughable that the manufacturers would have no responsibility for the levels of formaldehyde in the trailers they made. "When anyone purchases a product, they rely upon the knowledge of the individual that manufactured it," Buzbee said. "You can't make a product that makes people sick." But there is no government standard for the amount of formaldehyde in travel trailers. The government sets standards for indoor air quality for materials used to build mobile homes, but not for travel trailers. If the government were to set a standard for materials in travel trailers, the order would have to come from Congress. Until experts determine a safer level of the preservative, FEMA has set its own standard at 16 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air. Tests last year found an average of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air in FEMA trailers. "The lack of such a standard leaves manufacturers like Gulf Stream - which understandably have no special training or expertise regarding formaldehyde levels and their effects - with no clear and definitive guidance on this issue,"
Gulf Stream Coach chairman Jim Shea said in written testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing. Gulf Stream Coach, Inc. received the bulk of the FEMA trailer contracts after Katrina. Shea said every FEMA trailer was inspected at the factory, and FEMA inspectors were at the manufacturing plant while the trailers were being made. Since Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Stream's lobbying costs have more than doubled. In 2003 and 2004, there was no lobbying activity on behalf of Gulf Stream for trailer-related issues. In 2005, Gulf Stream paid less than $10,000 to lobby the House and administration on trailer contracts. But it paid $50,000 in 2006, $120,000 in 2007, and $60,000 in the first quarter of 2008 to lobby the House and administration on trailer issues, according to Senate records.