High Levels of Formaldehyde in Hurricane Housing Acknowledged by Government Agencies



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not act for more than a year on reports of high levels of formaldehyde in trailers used by evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, and most recently Hurricane Rita. The House report comes three days after a New Orleans judge ruled that FEMA can be sued by those who claim they were exposed to formaldehyde fumes.

Complaints of fumes began pouring into FEMA in 2005 when families who lost their homes in Katrina were housed in the government trailers. Incredibly, the CDC assessed that the trailers were safe as long as a window or other vent was kept open. However, the then director of the CDC’s Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, Dr. Christopher De Rosa, questioned this assessment. It is alleged in the subcommittee report that Dr. De Rossa was a whistle-blower and was demoted for pushing the agency to take further action to protect the public. This is backed up by the fact that Dr. De Rossa held his position for 16 prior to asking questions about the trailers and was suddenly removed from his position.

The initial appraisal of the high levels of formaldehyde was requested by FEMA in February 2007. However, nothing was done until February 2008 when both FEMA and the CDC acknowledged that the level of toxic fumes was five times higher than those found in most housing. The agencies then sped up their efforts to find safer housing for the nearly 40,000 families living in the trailers.

The CDC complains that the subcommittee was focusing on this 2008 assessment rather than an earlier October revision. The House subcommittee report shows the CDC timeline of what the agency knew about formaldehyde levels, and when it knew about them. Director Dr. Howard Frumkin and Deputy Director Thomas Sinks have testified that they knew nothing about the assessment until July 2007 when the first hearing on the issue was held by Rep. Henry A. Waxman. But after examining the agency agendas, it was found the issue was discussed at least 13 times prior to the July hearing. Frumkin and Sinks also blame De Rossa for making mistakes in the initial assessment. However, it was Frumkin, Sinks, and three others who review the assessment – not De Rossa.

According to the subcommittee report, the reaction of the agency “was marred by scientific flaws, ineffective leadership, a sluggish response to inform trailer residents of the potential risks they faced and a lack of urgency to actually more them from harm’s way.”

In high enough levels, formaldehyde is known to cause chronic bronchitis, eye irritation, cancer, and other illnesses. Children and the elderly are at higher risk than others for these problems. Formaldehyde is used in glue for fiberboard, plywood, rugs, and more.