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Katrina Trailer Makers Defend Record in Congressional Testimony

BY Admin  July 10, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST

FEMA trailers in New Orleans: AP Photo

Four companies — Gulf Stream, Forest River, Keystone and Pilgrim International — testified in a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as part of a probe into allegations that the materials used to build the trailers contained health hazards.

“[Gulf Stream] found pervasive formaldehyde contamination in its trailers, and it didn’t tell anyone,” committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said, according to the Associated Press.

But Republican lawmakers defended the companies, blaming the trailers’ problems on unclear federal regulations on acceptable formaldehyde levels.

“The problem was and remains confusion among federal agencies, not some conspiracy among trailer makers,” Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said, according to the Washington Post.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, FEMA spent approximately $2 billion to buy more than 120,000 travel trailers to temporarily house displaced residents. About 15,000 of those trailers are still occupied.

This winter, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 42 percent of the trailers contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde — a known carcinogen. The chemical — used in particle board and plywood — can cause problems such as miscarriages, asthma and chronic coughs. The CDC recommended that all trailer residents be moved to other housing.

Jim Shea, chairman of Gulf Stream, which built 50,000 of the trailers under a $520 million Federal Emergency Management Agency contract, said in testimony Wednesday that the company received its first formaldehyde complaint in March 2006.

Shortly thereafter, the company conducted tests on 11 trailers. They found formaldehyde levels of 100 parts per billion or higher — the level at which adverse health effects start, according to the CDC — in all of them, and levels above 500 ppb in four of them.

But, he said, the company decided that the results were “irrelevant information” because FEMA already knew about the high levels, Shea told the committee, according to the Washington Post. Also, the tests were not full scientific tests, but informal screenings with a device called a formaldemeter, Shea said.

Shea also said that the company offered to participate in more testing, but that FEMA refused the offer.

There is no government standard for acceptable levels of formaldehyde in travel trailers — the type manufactured for the hurricane evacuees — although there are regulations for mobile homes.

“What we’ve seen here is no regulation,” Waxman said, according to the Washington Post, “and no self-regulation by the industry as well.”