By David Michaels
More sickening revelations about FEMA’s lack of concern for the health of Americans, this time concerning their actions months after Hurricane Katrina. Spencer S. Hsu of the Washington Post reports that
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has suppressed warnings from its own Gulf coast field workers since the middle of 2006 about suspected health problems that may be linked to elevated levels of formaldehyde gas released in FEMA-provided trailers, lawmakers said today.
At a hearing this morning of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, investigators released internal e-mails indicating that FEMA lawyers rejected environmental testing out of fear that the agency would then become legally liable if health problems emerged among as many as 120,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who lived in trailers.
FEMA’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing,” because this “would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue,” wrote a FEMA logistics specialist on June 16, 2006, three months after news reports surfaced about the possible effects of the invisible cancer-causing compound and one month after the agency was sued.
Another FEMA attorney on June 15 advised, “[d]o not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”
Nearly 5,000 pages of documents turned over to the committee “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance,” [Committee Chairman Henry] Waxman charged. “Senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”
This can’t be blamed on Michael “Heckuva Job Brownie” Brown who resigned in September 2005. Clearly, FEMA is an agency that needs major ethical reorienting. Add one more item to the next Administration’s already too long to do list.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.