WASHINGTON — Federal officials knew that hurricane evacuees housed in temporary trailers were worried about dangerous levels of formaldehyde but took little action, government documents show.
Their primary concern was the legal fallout if the temporary housing presented a health hazard, according to records obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
"Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK," a lawyer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency wrote. "Once you get the results . . . the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."
Another advised that testing the trailers, which housed thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue."
FEMA did test one trailer, occupied by a pregnant woman and her 4-month-old child. The results showed formaldehyde levels 75 times higher than the maximum for workplace exposure recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The agency issued a statement that said it had "evaluated the small number of cases where odors of formaldehyde have been reported, and we are confident that there is no ongoing risk."
FEMA conducted tests on unoccupied trailers, but under conditions that appeared designed to minimize any danger.
Formaldehyde is a chemical used in the building industry. It can cause skin and respiratory problems, and high exposure may cause cancer. FEMA sent more than 120,000 trailers to Louisiana and Mississippi after the 2005 hurricanes; 60,000 are still in use.
At a Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday, lawmakers from both parties blasted FEMA officials for ignoring the problem and exposing hurricane victims to even further dangers.
"Premeditated ignorance," said Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who chaired the hearing. "They did their best not to know. It's sickening and the exact opposite of what government should be."
Evacuee Paul Stewart, a former Army Airborne infantry officer and police officer from Bay St. Louis, Miss., waged a fruitless four-month battle to persuade FEMA that his trailer was a health hazard. He said the agency made him feel like "a charity case."
"We lost a great deal," he said, "not the least of which was our faith in government."
FEMA Administrator David Paulison acknowledged that Stewart and other hurricane victims were treated badly.
"We recognize we have an issue," he said. "In hindsight, we could have moved faster. ... We simply did not have a grasp on the situation at the time."
When Paulison told Republican Rep. Tom Davis that he, not FEMA lawyers, set agency policy, the Virginia congressman replied, "I think you need some adult supervision over there."
This week, FEMA asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help in determining the scope of the formaldehyde problem.
Evacuee Lindsay Huckabee told the committee that FEMA consistently dismissed her concerns about the trailers, even as family members grew inexplicably ill. Her youngest son was born a month premature and developed sinus problems. Her daughter, who was 4 at the time, "had more ear infections than I can count, nosebleeds ... sometimes as many as three a week."
Huckabee, evacuated from Pass Christian, Miss., to a trailer in Kiln, Miss., said her daughter also came down with pneumonia several times and missed a lot of school. Her husband, meanwhile, recently developed a mouth tumor.
The Sierra Club, which has been investigating the problems, tested the Huckabees' trailer and found high levels of formaldehyde. FEMA only replaced it after a long, frustrating effort, she said.
"It took us 14 months of constant complaining, saying something's making us sick, to get around to it," Huckabee said.