Speaker Nancy Pelosi

U.S. House of Representatives

Oversight Hearing on "Toxic Trailers" in the Gulf Coast

July 19, 2007
Blog

At 10:00 a.m. the Oversight Committee will hold a hearing, "FEMA's Response to Reports of Toxic Trailers." The Committee will hold a hearing investigating formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers provided for victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes and FEMA's response to these reports. The Committee will hear from current residents occupying FEMA trailers, experts who are familiar with the health impact of formaldehyde, and from FEMA Administrator Paulison. Formaldehyde is a chemical used in paint and adhesives, and is classified as a "known carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Reports of high formaldehyde levels found in FEMA issued trailers and FEMA's response raise serious public health concerns.

Supplemental Memo and Exhibits >>

Watch the hearing live >>

Chairman Henry Waxman gives opening remarks:

Chairman Waxman:

"Another FEMA official wrote, the office of general counsel has advised 'We do not do testing, because it would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue.' Early in the process, due to the perseverance of a pregnant mother with a four month old child, FEMA did test one occupied trailer. The results showed that their trailer had formaldehyde levels 75 times higher than the maximum workplace exposure levels recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The mother evacuated the trailer. FEMA then stopped testing other trailers."

Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist, explains the danger of formaldehyde and the need for action:

Mary DeVany:

"The elevated exposures to this toxic, irritating, and cancer-causing gas in FEMA-issued travel trailers has developed into a major public health concern. Now that we have recognized the problem, Americans need to take prompt, effective action to help these disaster victims and safeguard their health. We have the tools. We now need Congress to take decisive action. We owe this to our fellow Americans who have been victimized again through no fault of their own."

Paul Stewart, a travel trailer occupant from December 2005 to March 2006, gives opening testimony:

Paul Stewart:

"One morning I found our pet cockatiel was very lethargic, unable to move, he was regurgitating, unable to keep his balance. I immediately called a veterinarian who told us to get him out of the camper immediately... The veterinarian told us that the camper was probably making him sick. He said there are many chemicals inside the camper, especially a new one. He said that formaldehyde was the likely cause. He said if we don't get the bird out of there, the bird will probably die. He explained to us that birds, much like children, breathe much more rapidly than adults, and they take in much more of the toxins that are inside the camper, and that he's going to show symptoms before we do, but that we should also get out."

James Harris, Jr., travel trailer occupant from April 2006 to the present, gives opening testimony:

James Harris, Jr.:

"We noticed a pungent, and overpowering odor that permeated through the whole FEMA travel trailer...Our eyes burned and watered as we tried to inhabit the trailer facility. We were told by the person who gave us the keys to the trailer initially, that if we opened the doors and windows of the trailer and allowed the trailer to air out for a couple of hours, that all the odors and the burning sensations of our eyes would pass and not come back. Over a period of time and to this day, we have found that this remedy did not remove the strong odors that we now know to be formaldehyde."

Rep. John Yarmuth (KY-03) questions travel trailer occupant Paul Stewart and other witnesses on how prevalent the formaldehyde was:

Paul Stewart:

"And I'll tell you two things that were shocking. Number one was the number of trailers that tested excessively high formaldehyde -- 88% of all the campers that were tested had formaldehyde levels that were deemed unhealthy. And the second, and almost as scary thing, is that when we walked in and asked these people, you know, this is who we are, this is who I am, I tested my camper, my camper was high, can we hang a test kit in your camper to make sure that what you're living in is safe. And almost unanimously the first response was 'as long as it's OK with FEMA, because I don't want to lose this house because if I lose it I'm going to be living back on my slab.'"

Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD-07) questions witnesses:

Rep. Cummings:

"I think it was you Mr. Stewart, said 'I've lost my faith in government.' And then you said something that really kind of struck me, you said 'in the real world you're on your own.' Well that's not the way the United States is supposed to be. When our people get in trouble just like you just said, the nation is supposed to come to their rescue. You should not be treated like you're not a citizen of this country, and I'd say we all have to straighten that out."

Chairman Henry Waxman questions FEMA Administrator David Paulison :

Chairman Waxman:

"Mr. Paulison, where your staff said a year and a half ago said you should be testing the occupied trailers. The testing didn't take place. Your lawyer sent an email saying if you test them you may take ownership of it. You said you didn't follow the advice of your lawyers, you said you followed what EPA had to say. EPA's statement is that the levels that they were seeing were too high for human health. Now there may be other problems, but you don't think even at this date that the formaldehyde levels were too high and might have endangered public health? Is that your testimony?"