FEMA Creates Its Own Disaster

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Remember FEMAvilles? They were those thousands of trailers sitting in a cow pasture while victims of Katrina and other storms remained homeless. In 2006, the empty trailers were just one more insult to the already-battered citizens of the Gulf Coast. Yet amazingly, it gets worse. Not only did FEMA put off distributing the trailers, it also put off testing those trailers for toxic chemicals. Now, new documents reveal that once public outcry finally forced the agency to conduct the tests, it squelched the results of its own report—that the chemicals in question may cause cancer.

Salon reports that in 2006, following reports of a rash of medical problems experienced by trailer residents, the agency asked scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to prepare a “health consultation” regarding toxins in the trailers. When chief of toxicology Christopher De Rosa insisted that the report address the long-term cancer risks associated with formaldehyde (a chemical used for embalming which, in addition to its other health effects, may trigger spontaneous abortions), FEMA went around him and had two of his associates prepare the report instead. When De Rosa discovered the deceit and complained to both his boss and FEMA’s attorney, he was removed from his job.

Though the report, initially released at the beginning of 2007, was finally revised to include the cancer risk last October, the damage has likely already been done. Salon reminds us that the people the agency actually did manage to place in trailers “almost immediately…called FEMA to complain of illnesses, from breathing difficulties, bloody noses and rashes to more serious problems, and even deaths, possibly connected to high levels of formaldehyde gas permeating the trailers.” And as the victims of Katrina continue to move out of the region, their long-term heath problems will go with them. What’s most shocking, though, is the amount of effort the agency continues to devote to obscuring its own mistakes. When the next Katrina strikes, will FEMA have done anything to learn from them?

—Casey Miner

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