Thursday, July 10, 2008

Democrats: Makers Knew Katrina Trailers Tainted

WASHINGTON - Manufacturers knew there were high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers provided to Hurricane Katrina victims, but sold them to the government anyway, according to a congressional report released Wednesday.

The report by Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is at odds with an analysis done by Republican staffers on the same committee. The Republican report found that trailer manufacturers should not be held accountable for the high levels of formaldehyde — a preservative commonly used in building materials — in trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up to house people displaced by Katrina in 2005. Republicans say it is the government's fault for not having standards for safe levels of formaldehyde in trailers.

But Democrats say their staff interviewed employees from one of the manufacturers — Gulf Stream Coach — who said they, too, were suffering effects from formaldehyde exposure, including nose bleeds, shortness of breath, dizziness and bleeding ears. One employee told investigators that there was a foul odor throughout the plant.

Gulf Stream Coach, Inc., received the bulk of the FEMA trailer contracts after Katrina, collecting more than $500 million.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the Democrats' investigation found that Gulf Stream did test trailers, but treated the test results as a public relations liability instead of as a health hazard.

"It found pervasive formaldehyde contamination in its trailers, and it didn't tell anyone," Waxman said Wednesday.

The Republican analysis said, "Blaming trailer manufacturers for doing what was expected of them would be misplaced and ineffective."

The Republican report also faults the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency for controversial testing that it says led to misleading results about the formaldehyde exposure. Last year, scientists tested hundreds of FEMA trailers and found potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing hundreds of current and former trailer occupants who are suing dozens of trailer manufacturers, said it's laughable to assert that the manufacturers bear no responsibility for the levels of formaldehyde in the trailers they made.

But there is no government standard for the amount of formaldehyde in travel trailers. The government sets standards for indoor air quality for materials used to build mobile homes, but not for travel trailers. If the government were to set a standard for materials in travel trailers, the order would have to come from Congress. Katrina victims now occupy 15,000 travel trailers in the Gulf Coast.

Until experts determine a safer level of the preservative, FEMA has set its own standard at 16 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air. Tests last year found an average of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air in FEMA trailers.

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