The Federal Emergency Management Agency took too long to respond to initial reports of dangerous levels of formaldehyde in trailers delivered to victims of the 2005 hurricanes, exposing people to possible health risks, a report of the Homeland Security Department inspector general said Thursday.
"FEMA did not display a degree of urgency in reacting to the reported formaldehyde problem," the report said, "a problem that could pose a significant health risk" to those living in the temporary housing.
The report marked a stinging reprimand of FEMA and its slow response to reports in 2006 that air in some trailers registered dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Critics have said the chemical used in the manufacture of certain mobile homes and trailers can cause cancer and respiratory illnesses.
FEMA and its contractors shipped about 203,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and other models to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two of the worst storms in U.S. history. The hurricanes destroyed more than 300,000 homes in 2005 and displaced about 700,000 people.
The report said about one third of the units had "significant potential formaldehyde problems."
Thousands remain in the trailers
Most victims on the Gulf Coast have moved out of the trailers and mobile homes since, though about 3,000 households in Louisiana and Mississippi remain in the units. Since the formaldehyde findings were uncovered, FEMA has made sure that formaldehyde levels in all new designs are of an acceptable range.
The report did not accuse any FEMA employee or contractor of wrongdoing, DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner said, and the findings stopped short of saying FEMA's delays were intentional.
But the report said FEMA took too long to tell hurricane victims about the risks they faced by living in the trailers as they repaired homes damaged by storms.
Clark Stevens, a FEMA spokesman, said the agency agreed with the findings. He said FEMA "has already made great progress" to ensure its trailers and mobile homes were safe.
FEMA has come up with new designs for trailers and mobile homes and tests for formaldehyde in those units, which are certified by qualified contractors, the report noted.
As early as October 2005, testing by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found high formaldehyde readings.
Report cites delay in testing
FEMA was made aware of the formaldehyde problem in March 2006 through news reports and warnings by the Sierra Club, but the agency did not take the matter seriously, the report added.
"When they (FEMA officials) did learn of the formaldehyde problems, nearly a year passed before any testing program was started and nearly two years passed before occupied trailers were tested and the occupants were informed of the extent of formaldehyde problems and potential health threats," the report said.
Betsy Natz, the executive director of the Formaldehyde Council Inc. in Washington, said people should not feel threatened by formaldehyde.
"Americans should feel confident in the knowledge that formaldehyde-based products, such as composite wood panels produced and certified to be low in emissions by domestic manufacturers, are safe," she said.