Manufacturers say they knew of FEMA trailer health risks

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/NEWSCOM
(Left to right) Gulf Stream Coach Chairman Jim Shea, Pilgrim International President Steve Bennet, Keystone RV President Ronald Fenech, and Forest River President and CEO Peter Liegl are sworn in before testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about FEMA trailers Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Manufacturers testified before Congress Wednesday that they were aware that the trailers used to house victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde. Congressional Republicans say that the government is ultimately at fault because it did not establish air quality standards for those specific types of homes.

At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, California Democrat Henry Waxman grilled officials of four companies – Gulf Stream Coach, Pilgrim International, Keystone RV, and Forest River – whose trailers were found to have the highest levels of formaldehyde, a chemical used to pressure-treat the wood panels in the trailers.

When Gulf Stream tested 11 occupied trailers two years ago, it found that every one had levels at or above 100 parts per billion, the level at which researchers say acute health effects begin to occur. Four of the trailers had levels above 500 parts per billion, the level at which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires medical monitoring.

Representative Waxman said that the companies should have informed the Federal Emergency Management Agency about the high levels of the toxic gas.

He sharply criticized Gulf Stream Coach chairman Jim Shea, whose company built 50,000 trailers for FEMA for $520 million. An investigation by House Democrats revealed documents that showed that the company had tested its trailers and found unsafe levels of the chemical. In his opening statement, Waxman said that Gulf Stream treated the test results "as a public relations and legal problem, not a public health threat," and that "It found pervasive formaldehyde contamination in its trailers. And it did not tell anyone."

Gulf Stream did write a letter to FEMA [PDF] in which it said that "informal testing" of the trailers indicated that the formaldehyde levels fell below what they called "the OSHA standard" of 750 parts per billion. That figure is the maximum level of allowable workplace exposure.

Waxman said that apparently FEMA did not follow up by asking for additional test results.

House Republicans point out that the government has not set any standard for the amount of permissible formaldehyde in travel trailers. As MSNBC reports, the government has indoor air-quality standards for mobile homes, but not travel trailers. Setting such a standard would require legislation from Congress.

Republicans are citing the absence of a federal standard to pin the blame on the government. The Washington Post quotes a number of GOP representatives who say that Waxman should lay off the trailermakers.

"The problem was and remains confusion among federal agencies, not some conspiracy among trailermakers," said ranking committee Republican Rep. Tom Davis (Va.).
Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana said that 8 million Americans live in or own mobile homes or trailers but that there had been only a handful of formaldehyde complaints before March 2006. "Instead of beating up manufacturers, we ought to give them a little vote of confidence," he said.
Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana suggested that companies were being subjected to a "double standard" and dubious science, noting that even before Katrina, a Tulane University study had found high formaldehyde levels in conventional homes in Baton Rouge.

For its part, FEMA issued a press release Thursday defending the trailer purchases:

FEMA neither knowingly, nor willingly, purchased manufactured units from dealerships and manufacturers that contained levels of formaldehyde above existing construction standards, nor did FEMA's specifications encourage non-compliance with such standards. We have been fully transparent in our actions on this issue.

The agency has announced that, in the absence of a federal standard, it has now set the standard at 16 parts per billion for all of its units.

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