JACKSON, Miss.--Oxfam America and the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called today for independent testing of scores of FEMA trailers that have housed victims of Hurricane Katrina for months while reportedly sickening them with formaldehyde fumes.
While complaints about the fumes have circulated at least since the spring, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has decided only now to arrange for the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct tests. That governmental foot-dragging—all too familiar since the first days after the disaster—does not inspire confidence in the results.
“We need to have independent testing to really determine what is going on,” said Miriam Aschkenasy, a public health specialist for Oxfam America. “If indeed there are elevated formaldehyde levels causing health troubles, then that’s a problem. This clearly needs to be further investigated.”
Last week, FEMA announced plans to analyze the trailers after receiving complaints from 46 people in Mississippi. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the fumes could be causing eye and nose irritations, breathing problems, and rashes.
Formaldehyde is a pungent gas used in the production of things such as particleboard and plywood. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a known human carcinogen.
The reports of ill health from the trailer fumes add to the litany of troubles storm victims have had in securing decent shelter in the long months since hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged or destroyed nearly half a million homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. Though Congress has allocated $16.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants to help rebuild the coast, as of early August, not one house in either state had been rebuilt using that money.
Instead, families have remained squeezed in government-issued trailers fit for camping—not living.
“I’m real concerned that policy makers are not at all in tune with the quality of life storm victims are enduring, including these troubling reports about the formaldehyde,” said Derrick Johnson, state president Mississippi NAACP. “If our legislators had to live in these same conditions, could they survive?”
On Aug. 26, Oxfam America and the NAACP will hold a town-hall style meeting in Gulfport, Miss., to probe the implications behind the government’s inadequate response to so many people during the Gulf Coast recovery. The session will take a candid and comprehensive look at where the region is one year after Katrina struck and explore why communities are being left behind in the reconstruction effort. Panelists will include NAACP President Bruce Gordon; actor/activist Danny Glover; and Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.
Oxfam is working in active partnership with the NAACP and other human rights groups in the Gulf Coast region to ensure fairness and equity for all the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, especially those in poor and working class black, white, and Vietnamese communities.