WASHINGTON — Trailer manufacturers defended themselves Wednesday on Capitol Hill, insisting they're not responsible for FEMA trailers that had toxic levels of formaldehyde, despite Democrats' claims the companies knew the dangers yet didn't do anything about it.
Top executives from four companies backed the safety and quality of their products in what is shaping up to be a partisan fight over who is to blame for health issues afflicting Katrina victims who lived in their trailers after the hurricane.
Democrats say the manufacturers should have taken more tests when medical complaints surfaced and done more to protect the displaced Katrina victims living in these trailers. Republicans say it is the government's fault for not having standards for safe levels of formaldehyde in trailers.
About 1 million people were displaced because of Katrina, and thousands were sent to emergency travel trailers that were later discovered to have high levels of formaldehyde _ a preservative commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. Shortly after Katrina, residents of FEMA-issued trailers reported frequent headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments.
There is no industry 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.
"It would be helpful to have a national standard for these kinds of products," said Jim Shea, chairman of Gulf Stream Coach _ the trailer manufacturer that received the bulk of the contracts to make trailers after Katrina, collecting more than $500 million. "The lack of such a standard leaves our industry with no clear guidance on the issue."
But Democrats and hundreds of current and former trailer occupants who are suing the manufacturers do not accept this defense. Some Gulf Stream employees complained they, too, were suffering effects from formaldehyde exposure, including nose bleeds, shortness of breath, dizziness and bleeding ears. One employee told Democratic investigators there was a foul odor in the plant as the trailers were being made.
"FEMA failed by ignoring the dangers of formaldehyde," Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee Henry Waxman said.
But the California Democrat insists Gulf Stream's failure is different: "The company did test trailers after hearing the first reports of high formaldehyde levels. It found pervasive formaldehyde contamination in its trailers. And it did not tell anyone," Waxman said.
Gulf Stream's Shea said this is not the case. There was no actual "testing" of trailers, he said. Instead, there was informal screening with a handheld device that measures the level of formaldehyde in the air called a Formaldemeter, which is not a scientific test. And Gulf Stream asked FEMA if it should test the trailers, but FEMA said no, Shea said.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., defended the companies. He said there is no evidence that the formaldehyde exposure in FEMA trailers has led to something serious, like cancer. He compared the reported ailments to side effects of a peanut allergy. The four trailer manufacturers testifying Wednesday all come from Souder's district in Elkhart County, Indiana.
Republicans also fault the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency for controversial testing that they say led to misleading results about the formaldehyde exposure.
To make a point, Republican staffers used a Formaldemeter to test the formaldehyde levels in the room next to the hearing room and found the levels at 80 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air.
Government tests last year found an average of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air in FEMA trailers.
Until experts determine a safer level of the preservative, FEMA has set its own standard at 16 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air _ a level many say is unrealistic.
It's been two years since Congress demanded a national strategy for disaster housing, and FEMA has yet to produce one.
It is unclear whether the strategy will include travel trailers. The FEMA administrator had promised never to use trailers again, but that decision was reversed for the 2008 hurricane season. Through November, FEMA will only use trailers as a last resort. If a state requests them, only the FEMA administrator can decide to use trailers, and victims could stay in trailers for only six months.
Katrina victims now occupy 15,000 travel trailers in the Gulf Coast. This is down from the more than 143,000 trailers that once housed Katrina victims.
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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: http://oversight.house.gov/