When the Investigative Unit heard that some of the more than 144,000 trailers used by FEMA for temporary housing across the Gulf could be making people sick, the first thing we did was file a Freedom of Information Act Request with FEMA. We wanted to know what FEMA knew and when they were aware that formaldehyde might be a factor in the air quality of the trailers and the health of the people inside.
Formaldehyde, according to experts we spoke with, can actually cause asthma in addition to being an irritant to mucous membranes and there are know links between formaldehyde exposure and cancers of the respiratory tract.
We filed the FOIA on March 30 and yesterday (May 15) as were editing this story for air we received an envelope stuffed with documents from the agency. Here is one that we found fascinating.
This document is the most interesting. It's a standard part of the job description package for most federal jobs. It is entitled "FEMA Job Hazard Analysis" and lists, in helpful chart form, the activities involved in the position. The position is Logistics Material Specialist, Trailer In-Bound Inspection (the guy or gal who inspects a brand-new trailer before it is sent off to a needy family in the Gulf).
Under the "Physical Hazard" for those entering a new trailer it says, "Formaldehyde off gassing..."
The potential injury: Cancer.
Why is this important? Because it offers a clarification to anyone wanting to take on the job of inspecting FEMA travel trailers during an 8-hour workday. FEMA has not offered the same clarification to the residents of trailers who have lived in those trailers for the past 21 months. The elderly and young children who are most susceptible to the effects of formaldehyde fumes often stay in the trailers 24/7 trying to escape the heat and humidity of the Gulf.
Click here to read the Investigative Unit's story on FEMA trailers and formaldehyde.
Click here to hear more from one man who helped build the trailers and says it made him sick.