July 9, 2008 -- Manufacturers of the trailers provided to families displaced by Hurricane Katrina were criticized today by lawmakers who demanded to know why temporary homes exposed storm victims to unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
On Wednesday, California Democrat Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said his investigation found that the government's leading supplier of the trailers, Gulf Stream Coach Inc., knew about the public health dangers and did nothing about them.
Waxman's investigation also found that four of the 11 occupied trailers tested by the trailer manufacturer had formaldehyde present at a level that is sufficient for medical monitoring.
Formaldehyde, a chemical widely used in building materials, can cause a variety of adverse health effects at high levels, such as watery eyes, burning in the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, coughing, wheezing and rashes, as well as triggering asthma attacks.
"No one was looking out for the interests of the displaced families living in FEMA trailers," Waxman said. "FEMA failed to do its job, and the trailer manufacturers took advantage of the situation.
"The health of thousands of vulnerable families was jeopardized," he said.
Today's hearing was the latest in a long string of criticisms over how the government managed Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Not only has the government been slammed for responding too late when the storm ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, but today, the committee released more findings about how it also supplied the region's newly homeless residents with trailers with dangerously high levels of formaldehyde.
According to the investigation, Gulf Stream employees manufacturing the trailers complained about the use of materials with a "foul" and "very strong chemical odor" that was "just overwhelming."
People living in the trailers also complained directly to trailer makers. "There is an odor in my trailer that will not go away," said one occupant of a FEMA trailer in Jefferson, La. "It burns my eyes and I am getting headaches every day. Please, please help me!"
Lindsay Huckabee lived in two mobile homes with her husband and five children since December 2005 after losing their apartment during Hurricane Katina. Though their homes were not the travel trailers specifically named as the main source of complaints, the Huckabees said that their trailors did test for high levels of formaldehyde and their children suffered from year-round allergy-like symptons and constant infections.
"When the first formaldehyde [issues] came up, I had a very optimistic opinion that FEMA did the best they could with what they had at the time," Huckabee said. "But I think that knowing [now] what they knew at the time, I feel like they intentionally, neglectfully endangered us because they knew."
Huckabee and her family moved into a motel in March, and this week, moved into a FEMA cottage.
Today, CEOs of several manufacturers that supplied FEMA with the trailers during the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including Gulf Stream, Forest River, Pilgrim International and Keystone RV, defended themselves.
"Our employees are proud of the product we make and the company they have helped build," said Peter Liegl, president and CEO of Forest River, who lost his composure at the witness table. "I must also tell you, candidly, that many of our workers are now confused and hurt at the charges about the quality of RVs."
Gulf Stream chairman Jim Shea said, "We took special care to provide a safe and quality product," noting that "FEMA's order did not include any specifications as to formaldehyde levels" and "there are no federal standards governing formaldehyde."
The panel's Republicans also clashed with Democrats over who was ultimately responsible for keeping families safe from public health hazards.
While Waxman's investigation, released today, chided trailer manufacturers, Republicans released a separate report that blamed the government for the lack of universal standards for formaldehyde, with California Republican Darrell Issa arguing that the "hysteria" about formaldehyde levels "may or may not be valid."
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., agreed. "Instead of beating on the manufacturers, I think we oughta give them a little vote of confidence, because they have such a good track record in the past."
In testing 50 trailers, including 11 that were occupied, Gulf Stream found that all had formaldehyde levels above 100 parts per billion, the level at which the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health says people can experience acute adverse health effects. Twenty of the unoccupied trailers had nine times that amount of formaldehyde, regarded as dangerous if exposed for more than eight hours in a lifetime, according to the Democrats' findings.
"I think that if we have information that may affect peoples' health, we should share that information with the people," said Michael McGeehin, director of environmental hazards and health effects at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health.
Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said exposure to formaldehyde would bring on a bevy of complications, including acute irritation to the eyes, nose and upper airways, "especially [to] small children, the elderly, [and] people with chronic disease, like asthma.
"Part of the problem with the trailers is that they are small, they are confined, and they are not well ventilated," Landrigan explained. "And on top of that is the fact that, people, as I understand it, were in these trailers for days and weeks at a time. [They were] not able to [go] outside too much, and so, they were exposed to fairly [high] levels of exposure on a chronic basis. That is a bad combination."
In a letter to FEMA, Gulf Stream offered to provide more information about the results, but the only tests mentioned in the letter were those in the occupied trailers tested. Rather than use the levels accepted by NIOSH, Gulf Stream used those of the Occupational Health & Safety Administration, which established its levels 15 years ago.
FEMA never asked for additional test results, the investigation found.
"Our country is becoming mired in a culture of mediocrity, and failure to be empathetic to human beings," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
Said Huckabee, "I don't think they can say they didn't know. Formaldehyde is not a new chemical. It is something they have used for years."
ABC News' Kate Barrett and Randy Gyllenhaal contributed to this report.