The federal government concluded that hundreds of thousands of FEMA trailers that housed victims of Hurricane Katrina were too contaminated to be used again for housing because of dangerous levels of formaldehyde. Rather than destroying the trailers, the General Services Administration released them for sale through government auctions, warning that they should not be sold for housing. But that warning is being ignored by unscrupulous merchants who snapped up the trailers at fire sale prices and now are reselling them to house oil cleanup workers along the Gulf Coast.
How many ways can one mistake be compounded?
The first mistake was manufacturing the trailers without adhering to safety standards for formaldehyde, a chemical preservative linked to health problems ranging from respiratory irritation to cancer. After Katrina survivors were sickened by breathing the heavy formaldehyde fumes inside their trailers, the government stopped using them for emergency housing. But it allowed them to be sold when there was realistically no way to determine whether people would be living in them. Now, the trailers could be the source of a whole new health crisis.
Private businesses are selling the trailers to oil cleanup contractors who need worker housing, or to individual workers for family quarters. Last month, according to a New York Times report, two consulting firms even proposed putting hundreds of the FEMA trailers on barges and anchoring them in the gulf near the oil spill for offshore worker housing. Now there's a dandy idea. Workers already exposed to toxins in their work will get a dose of a different contaminant in their trailers. Imagine the difficulty of identifying the cause and responsible party if workers fall ill after being exposed to both formaldehyde and toxic oil.
New FEMA trailers don't have the formaldehyde problem and could be used for emergency housing, but the old ones never should have been released to the private marketplace and certainly should not be used to house oil workers. They are a public health hazard the government now is obligated to address.