FEMA’s response to formaldehyde discovery impeded timely resolution, IG says

It took officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency a year of study to figure out that increasing ventilation in unoccupied travel trailers was the most effective way to reduce formaldehyde levels, information that was widely known, even by FEMA officials, before the study began.

Meanwhile, occupied trailers went untested for high levels of the industrial chemical. After working out an agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the units -- a year and a half after occupants began reporting health problems -- FEMA halted testing because it didn't yet have a "public communications strategy for the Congress, media and trailer occupants once the study results were announced," according to a report released on Thursday by Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner.

"The FEMA study of unoccupied units not only failed to address the occupied units that were of most concern, but its results were not fully disclosed," Skinner wrote. Although the agency subsequently arranged with CDC to study formaldehyde levels in the occupied trailers, FEMA blocked the study's progress on two occasions, the IG found.

By the time formaldehyde testing was completed in early January 2008, 45,000 individuals were still living in the trailers. Because the testing was conducted so long after occupants had moved into the units, test results could have underestimated the extent of exposure people experienced, the IG concluded.

The study, requested by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chronicles FEMA's slow response to reports that people living in travel trailers the agency provided following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were getting sick as a result of exposure to higher-than-normal formaldehyde levels in them.

"The Bush administration's delayed action on testing these trailers is absolutely unacceptable," Thompson said in a statement. "Clearly, the old FEMA was more worried about media relations than they were about the health of the families they are charged with serving."

The IG recommended FEMA change its contracting policies for temporary housing units and establish guidelines and training on coping with health and safety issues that arise among agency clients in the future.

FEMA already has acted on several of the IG's 10 recommendations and has accepted the others. But in a written response to a draft of the report, Robert Farmer, acting director of the Office of Policy and Program Analysis, said it was unfair to fault FEMA for not establishing acceptable formaldehyde levels in initial contracts to purchase temporary housing units. Such criticism can be made only in hindsight, he said.

"There was no known formaldehyde issue to address and therefore no established standards," Farmer wrote. "Based on FEMA's long history of using trailers in prior disasters with no systematic air quality concerns, there was no reasonable basis for FEMA to suspect that a significant formaldehyde issue existed."

Thompson said he is pleased that FEMA has agreed to implement all of the IG's recommendations. "This government must now ensure that we help those who may suffer adverse health consequences because of government negligence," he said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.