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.

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