The Katrina chronicles: Formaldehyde-laced trailers set to claim another set of victims

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

The Washington Post ran a front-page article Saturday, written by Spencer Hsu, which reported the auction sale by FEMA of most of the 120,000 notorious formaldehyde-tainted trailers it had purchased five years ago to house the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The article cites FEMA as saying that “wholesale buyers from the auction must sign contracts attesting that trailers will not be used, sold or advertised as housing, and that trailers will carry a sticker saying, ‘Not to be used for housing’.”

Think that’s likely to be enough? 

Think again.  Consider this excerpt from a consumer alert issued by the Attorney General of Arkansas, Dustin McDaniel:  “Proceed with caution, extreme caution, if you are tempted to respond to what appears to be an attractive offer for a travel trailer or manufactured home.”  He and others pointed to the high likelihood that the trailers will now enter a market where they may be sold and resold repeatedly and the warning label removed or ignored.

Hsu cites one woman who several years ago purchased a trailer for her son – days before all the publicity broke about dangerous levels of formaldehyde.  Now she’s worried about him keeping the trailer, but also has qualms about selling it to someone else.  “This is like history repeating itself," she said. "People are all going to buy them, move into them and then start getting sick."

Some buyers appear to have fewer qualms:  The highest bidder for the FEMA trailers says he already has buyers – retailers who intend to resell the trailers – for the 15,000 units he bought at auction, adding that formaldehyde is a “non-topic” that his buyers don’t even ask about.

This story vividly illustrates just how enduring the lifecycles of dangerous chemicals can be when our policies let chemicals get so deeply embedded into commerce without requiring they be shown to be safe.

It’s not an isolated incident.  In another recent front page Washington Post article, Lyndsay Layton documented the difficulties faced by the food industry in trying to replace a chemical used to make the lining used inside virtually every food can sold in America.  That chemical is bisphenol A (BPA) – a hormone-like compound which is found in the bodies of 93% of the American public, and is now suspected of interfering with human reproduction and early development.  Some 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced annually.

But back to formaldehyde, an estimated 46 billion pounds of which are made annually.

TSCA shares the blame

A year ago, in the House of Representatives’ first oversight hearing on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in decades, I testified about how the structural flaws in this 34-year-old law played a key role in allowing those FEMA trailers to be built and to deliver a second knock-out blow to Katrina victims.

The FEMA trailers were made using plywood imported from China.  That plywood is made using adhesives that release high levels of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.  China makes a low-formaldehyde product for export to Europe and Japan, and even for domestic use in China, because in those markets there are regulatory limits in place.  But they have a ready market here in the U.S. for the cheaper, more dangerous plywood because we have no such restrictions.  That plywood ended up in the FEMA trailers – and continues to be sold into countless other markets across the country.

In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was petitioned under TSCA to regulate this use of formaldehyde.  It denied the petition, citing its insufficient legal authority under TSCA and saying that further study is needed.

Meanwhile, the tainted trailers live on and are now slated to expose yet another group of unwitting victims as they descend to the next sad stage in their lifecycle.

Ironically, unique among all federal environmental laws, TSCA is supposed to give EPA the ability to reduce risk along the entire lifecycle of a chemical, from its production and distribution, through its use and all the way to disposal of products containing it.  But TSCA made actually exercising any of that authority dependent on EPA proving a chemical presents an “unreasonable risk,” something it was unable to do even for asbestos back in 1991, and which it has never tried again.

It’s long past time we had a federal law that gives EPA the power to protect Americans from dangerous chemicals already on the market – and to prevent future repeats of episodes like the FEMA trailer debacle.  That will only happen when producers are compelled to prove their chemicals are safe as a condition for entering or remaining in commerce.

I urge you to join the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign in pressing for real reform of TSCA that will serve the next generation of Americans far better than it did the last.  And tell your members of Congress to do the same.

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5 Comments

  1. rich
    Posted March 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    The typical consumer has no clue about formaldehyde. We know childhood cancer and asthma are both increasing rapidly enough there has to be an environmental exposure.

    Add the December 15, 2009 California Air Resources Board report that concludes:

    "Nearly all homes (98%) had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation…"

    Add the February 2010 cover article of the peer reviewed magazine Synergist about the indoor air quality of energy efficent homes.

    Turns out that the typical new energy efficent home actually has higher formaldehyde measured in the indoor air then did the infamous FEMA trailers. Do the consumers care? Consumers don't even have a clue that their homes are what is most likely causing the increase in childhood cancer and asthma.

    Testing is all of $39. I say the heck with EPA and governement. Just some main street media informing the consumer so that they can test their own homes in order to protect their family.

  2. Posted March 15, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you for printing the truth about high formaldehyde products being dumped in the US that wouldn't be allowed to be used in Europe, Japan or even where they were manufactured in China. It is very sad that the country didn't learn anything from the number of people who got sick and those who died from excess formaldehyde exposure in the FEMA trailers. The Formaldehyde Council is still working overtime to claim formaldehyde is great stuff, and even got Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana–where so many thousands of families suffered from formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers–to successfully force EPA to submit to a National Academy of Sciences review of the formaldehyde research prior to issuing regulations. That will delay the process, and give the formaldehyde industry time to make sure their biased scientific studies are taken into consideration.

    Becky Gillette, Formaldehyde Campaign Director
    Sierra Club

  3. Sarah Dorrance-Minch
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    My husband and I bought a brand new double-wide trailer this past summer. We started getting all kinds of sick (severe chronic sinus infections, nausea, bronchitis, that sort of thing) in October, when we started using heat rather than central air or windows wide open. We eventually put two and two together after reading an article about "repurposing" FEMA trailers and looking at our owner's paperwork, which did include a formaldehyde disclosure form.

    Once we figured out the problem, tacking it was pretty straightforward. We opened the windows until our tax refund got deposited (so what if it was winter?) and then invested in beds made of REAL wood that got our mattresses high off the floor, and bought high-end activated carbon furnace filters and tons of houseplants that were listed by NASA as good fighters of formaldehyde (bamboo, spider plants, ivy). We are much healthier now, as are our daughters, but we aren't disaster victims, nor are we desperately strapped people looking for cheap digs. Will the average buyer of these resold FEMA trailers have central air? Be a non-smoker? Be able to afford expensive filters? Know to research formaldehyde poisoning on the internet and how to help detox a house or office? I don't think so.

  4. Posted March 16, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful and informative comments. Sarah's comment in particular reinforces my own view that the last thing we should do is to foist problems like this onto individual consumers and expect them to figure out how to implement — and pay for — the steps needed to reduce their individual exposures. Government, and especially companies that make the chemicals and associated products, must bear responsibility to avoid these problems from arising in the first place.

  5. Julie M
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I would like to know where I can get a test kit for $39? Also, does anyone know a good website for actually listing all of the housing materials that contain formaldehyde or how we can identify those products?

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