FEMA fumbles on formaldehyde

It’s not an emergency, but if you live in a FEMA trailer, you need to get out.

Never mind that people have been complaining since 2006 that formaldehyde in the trailers made them sick. Never mind that there’s evidence FEMA lawyers slowed the investigation.

Never mind that the day before FEMA’s announcement last week that it would promptly move Katrina and Rita hurricane victims out of FEMA trailers, the agency announced it would move homeless victims of recent tornadoes in Arkansas and Tennessee into FEMA trailers.

What’s changed? As it turns out, results from a Centers for Disease Control study indicate that the people who thought the trailers were making them sick may have been right.

The CDC says it doesn’t consider its findings to be a public health emergency.

On the other hand, the CDC thinks trailer occupants need to be moved out as soon as possible and certainly before summer, when everyone is likely to have the air conditioning turned up and the doors and windows shut tight.

What the CDC found was that in 519 travel trailers and mobile homes tested in Louisiana and Mississippi, the average level of formaldehyde was about 77 parts per billion.

The common levels expected in indoor air are between 10 and 20 parts per billion.

Long-term exposure to formaldehyde — found in many materials used in the trailers — can be linked to an increased risk of cancer and a risk of respiratory illness, the CDC says.

For those reasons, FEMA wants to be even quicker in moving out children, elderly people, pregnant women, people who have chronic breathing problems such as asthma, and people who are experiencing symptoms of respiratory trouble.

FEMA is already claiming that studies take time, that the agency had already offered to move more than 7,000 households out of the trailers because the occupants were concerned about formaldehyde exposure, and that the agency wanted everyone out of the trailers before hurricane season anyway.

But sadly, FEMA has a well-deserved reputation for incompetence, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the facts don’t mesh with the agency’s spin on bad news.

FEMA knew as early as the spring of 2006 that its trailers might be making people sick, and only now is the exposure to formaldehyde considered at least urgent, if not an actual emergency.

Once again, America’s federal disaster response agency has let down people who needed help and the taxpayers who fund disaster recovery efforts.