Bill Walsh | May 30, 2007
In the May 11, 2007 issue of the Healthy Building News, we reported on the California Air Resources Board (CARB) decision to severely limit allowable emissions of toxic formaldehyde gas from particle board and other composite wood building materials.
One week later, news reports documenting formaldehyde poisoning of children in the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi were being dismissed by federal officials. The source of the kids' chronic coughing, burning eyes, nose bleeds and sinus infections: those same building materials as used in trailers provided to survivors of hurricane Katrina by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to news reports [link no longer available], FEMA Director David Paulison said he was unaware of any health risks from the trailers. "We've told people they can air those trailers out," he said, by opening windows and turning on air conditioners.
Back in March, two weeks after the state of California determined that "Exposure to low or moderate levels of formaldehyde can result in eye and upper respiratory tract irritation, headache, and rhinitis," FEMA officials reassured Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there were no health risks associated with FEMA trailers. But according to the EPA, formaldehyde, at levels that can be found in homes with significant amounts of pressed products, can cause "watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing," along with wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; severe allergic reactions and asthma attacks.
The CDC concurs and adds that "Children exposed to the same levels of formaldehyde as adults may receive larger doses because they have greater lung surface area:body weight ratios and increased minute volumes:weight ratios. In addition, they may be exposed to higher levels than adults in the same location because of their short stature and the higher levels of formaldehyde found nearer to the ground."
The health effects of formaldehyde don't stop with bronchial distress and allergic responses. The World Health Organization classifies formaldehyde as a known carcinogen.
After learning that a Mississippi pediatrician was attributing multiple cases of childhood illnesses to formaldehyde offgassing in their FEMA trailers and raising cancer concerns, CBS news tested the home of one sick child using the same equipment FEMA uses. That test found the child exposed to formaldehyde in his home at levels 70% higher than EPA's recommended exposure limits for adults in the workplace. The child has lived there for almost 2 years.
One would think that the EPA, CDC and California findings would compel action to prevent formaldehyde poisoning of children in FEMA trailers. But there is no law against knowingly and needlessly exposing children in Mississippi trailers to a human carcinogen while they sleep, two years after a hurricane took their home. This is why we need the Precautionary Principle.
In the meantime - sleep well Mr. Paulison, the law's on your side.
 "Proposed Airborne Toxic Control Measure To Reduce Formaldehyde Emissions From Composite Wood Products" California Air Resource Board, March 9, 2007.
 Letter from David Garrat, FEMA Acting Director of Recovery to Rep. Henry Waxman, March 23, 2007 p.3
 "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof." - Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, Jan. 1998