Toxic Trailer Makers Testify In Congress

fema trailers keteyian
Republicans are blaming the federal government for not having standards for safe levels of formaldehyde in trailers used by Hurricane Katrina victims.

Democrats say that's not the whole story, but haven't offered their view of the problems.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was holding a hearing Wednesday where the heads of four major Indiana-based travel trailer manufacturers were to testify.

In advance of the hearing, a GOP staff analysis said companies that make recreational vehicles should not be blamed for high levels of formaldehyde in trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up to house people displaced by Katrina in 2005.

"Blaming trailer manufacturers for doing what was expected of them would be misplaced and ineffective," the analysis said.

The report also faults the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency for controversial testing that led to misleading results about the formaldehyde exposure. Last year, scientists tested hundreds of FEMA trailers and found potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

A spokeswoman for Democrats on the committee said the Republican findings were incomplete. The Democrats were to release their findings at Wednesday's hearing.

Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. Complaints began popping up shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with residents of FEMA-issued trailers reporting frequent headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments.

"Trailer manufacturers were pushed to their limits and did their best to help ill-prepared and disjointed government agencies respond to the disaster," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee.

But Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing hundreds of current and former trailer occupants who are suing dozens of trailer manufacturers, said it's laughable to assert that the manufacturers bear no responsibility for the levels of formaldehyde in the trailers they made.

But there is no government 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. If the government were to set a standard for materials in travel trailers, the order would have to come from Congress. Katrina victims now occupy 15,000 travel trailers in the Gulf Coast.

Until experts determine a safer level of the preservative, FEMA has set its own standard at 16 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air. Tests last year found an average of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air in FEMA trailers.

"The lack of such a standard leaves manufacturers like Gulf Stream - which understandably have no special training or expertise regarding formaldehyde levels and their effects - with no clear and definitive guidance on this issue," Jim Shea, chairman of Nappanee, Ind.-based Gulf Stream Coach, said in written testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing.

In a report on the CBS Evening News, chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian spoke exclusively with people who worked on the trailer production lines at Gulf Stream and say the manufacturers knew they had a formaldehyde problem.

"We were instructed to open the doors and windows so that the odor wouldn't be as strong when the FEMA inspectors got there," Linda Esparza told Keteyian.

Gulf Stream Coach, Inc. received the bulk of the FEMA trailer contracts after Katrina. Shea said every FEMA trailer was inspected at the factory, and FEMA inspectors were at the manufacturing plant while the trailers were being made.

Other companies with executives expected to testify before the committee are Keystone RV, based in Goshen, Ind.; Pilgrim International, based in Middlebury, Ind.; and Forest River, based in Elkhart, Ind.