Katrina chronicles meet the BP oil disaster: Formaldehyde-laced trailers are back in the Gulf

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

In another truly bizarre collision between recent Gulf coast disasters (on top of Hurricane Alex), Ian Urbina of the New York Times reports on the front page today that those toxic trailers – sold at auction by FEMA back in March – have been reincarnated once again, this time as housing for Gulf cleanup workers.

I had blogged about the sale at the time, questioning the viability of FEMA’s assurance 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’.”  In that post, I had cynically asked:  “Think that’s likely to be enough?”

With good reason, it turns out. 

Dozens of the trailers have been sold or otherwise provided to unwitting workers who are flocking to the Gulf to fill the jobs being offered by disaster relief firms.  As the Times story put it:  “They have been showing up in mobile-home parks, open fields and local boatyards as thousands of cleanup workers have scrambled to find housing.”

And those warning labels that are supposed to alert occupants that the trailers are unsuited for residential use?  Nowhere to be found, despite FEMA’s protestations that the label requirement and ban on use of the trailers for housing remain in effect and that owners are obliged to inform subsequent buyers of the prohibition.

At least some effort, however feeble, is being mounted by another federal agency to enforce the ban.  The Times reports:

“These rules are not being followed in many cases, however. Officials with the inspector general’s office of the General Services Administration said Wednesday that they had opened at least seven cases concerning buyers who might not have posted the certification and formaldehyde warnings on trailers they sold.”

Will this recurring nightmare never end?  In my earlier post, I had noted that this sorry series of episodes is a striking illustration of how the lifecycles of dangerous chemicals can endure when our policies let chemicals get so deeply embedded into commerce without requiring they be shown to be safe.

How ironic that this latest installment comes just as a bill to restrict formaldehyde in pressed wood products (like the plywood used in those trailers) arrives on the President’s desk.  That new law will at least cut off the source of supply – but will do nothing to stem this legacy exposure, which continues with no apparent end in sight.

One of the key demands that EDF and other members of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition are making for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – the underlying federal policy that has allowed all this to unfold – is to empower the Environmental Protection Agency to act immediately to reduce exposures to dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde, by imposing controls not only on their production and specific uses, but across the full lifecycle of such chemicals and products containing them.

I urge you to make your voices heard:

  • Learn more about dangerous chemicals and our failed policies, and how you can tell those that set – and can change – those policies that you are Not a Guinea Pig.
  • 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.
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  1. rich
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    The return of the FEMA trailers is unbelivable, except exactly what people were warning about prior to the auctions. However, the real focus should be focused on the fact that formaldehyde is larger than FEMA trailers.

    Specifically, a ‘green,’ Phase 1 CARB compliant, $3.5 Million home had 198 ppb formaldehyde w/front door & windows open, 24×365 forced fresh air ventilation system & A/C set @ 68.

    “LEED Certification – Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health” 5/25/2010:
    “The rise in childhood asthma, beginning in the early 1980s, has paralleled an increase in energy efficiency of buildings, and data suggest that increased chemical exposure in indoor environments may be the reason. Greater insulation, less ventilation, and a huge increase in new chemicals and products, within new buildings, collectively induce chemical exposures and potential health effects never previously experienced in human history.” ehhi.org/reports/leed

    California Air Resources Board’s report 12/15/2009:
    “Nearly all homes(98%)had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation…” arb.ca.gov/research/apr/past/04-310.pdf

    Unintended Consequences: Formaldehyde Exposures in Green Homes 2/2010
    HealthyBuilding.net & IndoorAirAnswers.com

  2. Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for providing these resources and insights, rich. I totally agree the problem is much bigger than trailers, or pressed wood, or formaldehyde. The problem extends to the thousands of chemicals in use that have been inadequately tested and never required to be shown to be safe. That's where underlying reform of our laws, especially the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), somes in. Only through a comprehensive approach can we end this whack-a-mole approach to addressing chemical risks.