By David Michaels

In the continuing post-Hurricane Katrina debacle, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is facing two daunting tasks:

  • Cleaning up some of the 56,000 trailers that are off-gassing formaldehyde, a toxic chemical; and
  • Cleaning up the FEMA Office of General Counsel, which is evidently staffed with unethical attorneys. One recommended that the agency not test for formaldehyde because “Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

After a blistering hearing of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, and the release of a trove of embarrassing documents, FEMA has seen the error of its way and asked the CDC for help in testing the trailers for formaldehyde levels.

According to Ana Radelat of the Jackson (Misissippi) Clarion-Ledger:

A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is going to New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Biloxi in the next few days to determine whether the thousands of trailers that house Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims are toxic.

The move comes less than a week after members of a House panel rebuked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for ignoring complaints from hurricane victims who told of burning eyes, respiratory ailments, bloody noses and other problems after living in the trailers.

The seven-member team that includes a medical toxicologist and industrial hygienist will try to figure the best way to test the trailers for high levels of formaldehyde, according to CDC spokeswoman Dagny Olivares.

An engineer will examine ways to remove environmental pollutants from the trailers, which were distributed by FEMA for use as temporary housing after the hurricanes.

More than 56,000 travel trailers are in use on the Gulf Coast, according to FEMA, with several thousand mobile homes also occupied.

Cleaning up the General Counsel’s office will be the more difficult but, in the long run, the more important task. The Department of Homeland Security needs a plan to ensure that its attorneys recognize that their role is to help the agency assist disaster victims, not protect the agency above all else.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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