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Letter to Elaine L. Chao, Secretary of Labor, Re: Investigation of Reports that Toxic FEMA Trailers Sickened Workers

Letter

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Clinton and Landrieu Call for Investigation of Reports that Toxic FEMA Trailers Sickened Workers

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) have called on the Bush Administration to fully investigate allegations that manufacturers of the formaldehyde-contaminated trailers that were used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to house displaced victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have exposed their own workers to unsafe levels of toxins. In a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, the senators questioned whether a lack of federal enforcement of workplace safety standards may have allowed the workers' exposure.

"We know that the administration ignored reports for more than a year that displaced hurricane victims living in these trailers were suffering from unsafe levels of contamination. Now, on top of that national disgrace, we learn that these toxic trailers may also have poisoned the workers who built them. Once again, lax federal oversight and safety standards may have allowed this to happen," Senator Clinton said. "I urge the administration to fully investigate these allegations and provide the answers that the people of the Gulf Coast and these affected employees deserve."

"The CDC has revealed that the level of formaldehyde in trailers used for hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi was five times as high as the normal level. The trailers FEMA approved and gave out following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed the victims to this extreme health hazard, but workers in the factories producing the trailers were also exposed to levels far exceeding OSHA guidelines. It is important that Secretary Chao follow up on this lack of enforcement to ensure no American is ever again so unnecessarily exposed to such toxic levels of this carcinogen," said Senator Landrieu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims living in FEMA trailers are being exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde - on average, about five times higher than the levels of formaldehyde in the average home. Earlier this month, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a report stating that manufacturers knew that there were high levels of formaldehyde in trailers for Katrina victims, but sold the trailers to the government regardless.

Senator Clinton introduced legislation to ensure that all trailers and mobile homes purchased by FEMA meet the safety standards for properties maintained by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which requires that all properties used in its programs "be free of hazardous materials, contamination, toxic chemicals and gasses, and radioactive substances, where a hazard could affect the health and safety of occupants." Since the introduction of that legislation, FEMA has significantly lowered the allowable levels of formaldehyde in the trailers that they purchase. Senator Clinton also sent a letter to President Bush decrying the Administration's record of failure and incompetence in addressing the aftermath of the hurricanes and the needs of the victims. She called for all the displaced victims to be moved out of the contaminated trailers.

Senator Landrieu chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Disaster Recovery Subcommittee with jurisdiction over FEMA. Her subcommittee has begun an investigation into FEMA's failed housing strategy, and she has held numerous hearings on the federal government's response to the hurricanes. She is committed to reforming the agency and the Stafford Act that governs disaster response.
The text of the senators' letter follows.

The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
U.S. Secretary of Labor
United States Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20210

Dear Madam Secretary:

We are writing to request that you investigate a lack of enforcement on the part of trailer manufactures that allegedly exposed workers in the Gulf Coast and other places where trailers are used to levels higher than that allowed by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).

OSHA standards for formaldehyde exposure, as outlined in 29 CFR 1910.1948, state that employers shall certify that workers are not exposed to an airborne concentration of formaldehyde exceeding 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air over an 8-hour time weighted average. It also defines exposure exceeding 0.5 parts formaldehyde per million parts of air over an 8-hour time weighted average as an "action level" at which time employers should engage of monitoring of employees exposed to such high levels. These standards have been in place since 1992.

A recent report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform notes that several manufacturers of travel trailers delivered to FEMA emitted formaldehyde at levels far exceeding OSHA standards. It also noted that one manufacturer in particular had employees complain of physical symptoms consistent with formaldehyde exposure, including nose bleeds, shortness of breath, watery eyes, and burning sensations in the respiratory system. In addition to these symptoms, long-term health effects have also been linked to formaldehyde exposure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen under high exposure conditions.

We are concerned that the OSHA standard may have been violated and we request that you follow up on this report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to determine the following:

1. If manufacturers violated exposure levels, what actions on the part of your Department have been taken to address possible health needs of exposed workers?

2. What protective equipment was or is available to workers, and if none is available, what steps are you taking to ensure that companies will have the proper protective equipment in the future?

3. What enforcement steps will your agency take if this standard has been violated in places like the Gulf Coast and elsewhere?

We look forward to receiving your response outlining the steps your agency will take to ensure the health and safety of workers for these manufacturers.

Sincerely,


Mary Landrieu

Hillary Rodham Clinton


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