FEMA’s Toxic Environment

By David Michaels

We are pleased that the Washington Post has come to the same conclusion we have here at the Pump Handle (see here and here): something needs to be done to shake up the attorneys at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In an editorial today entitled FEMA’s Toxic Environment, the Post tells FEMA director R. David Paulison that “knocking a few heads in FEMA’s general counsel’s office would be a good first step” in sending a strong signal that the beleaguered agency needs to undergo major changes.

The environment at FEMA is certainly toxic to the Katrina victims, many of whom were moved into trailers where they were exposed to the toxic gas formaldehyde:          

To be sure, the alarm about the potentially cancer-causing gas was first sounded in March 2006 by FEMA field workers, who urged quick action in response to complaints about high levels of formaldehyde in trailers occupied by survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet, stunning e-mails provided by FEMA to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed that the agency’s lawyers recommended doing nothing. As one FEMA official wrote in a June 2006 e-mail, the Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.”

It gets worse. After a Louisiana man was found dead in his trailer in June 2006 — a man who had told neighbors that he was afraid to use his air conditioner because it made the formaldehyde problem worse — a 28-person, six-agency conference call took place. FEMA’s lawyers again opposed air-quality testing. Witnesses at last week’s hearing talked about symptoms that bothered them for months: nosebleeds; itchy throats and eyes; complications with pregnancy; children with multiple cases of pneumonia. Their pleas for help from FEMA, they said, were met with cold indifference.

Mr. Paulison has promised to address these problems “head-on”. One important and easy way he could begin to fulfill his promise is to take steps to hold these attorneys responsible.

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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