by Richard Denison, PhD, cross-posted from EDF Blog

The Washington Post ran a front-page article Saturday, written by Spencer Hsu, which reported the auction sale by FEMA of most of the 120,000 notorious formaldehyde-tainted trailers it had purchased five years ago to house the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  The article cites FEMA as saying that “wholesale buyers from the auction must sign contracts attesting that trailers will not be used, sold or advertised as housing, and that trailers will carry a sticker saying, ‘Not to be used for housing’.”

Think that’s likely to be enough? 

Think again. 

Consider this excerpt from a consumer alert issued by the Attorney General of Arkansas, Dustin McDaniel:  “Proceed with caution, extreme caution, if you are tempted to respond to what appears to be an attractive offer for a travel trailer or manufactured home.”  He and others pointed to the high likelihood that the trailers will now enter a market where they may be sold and resold repeatedly and the warning label removed or ignored.

Hsu cites one woman who several years ago purchased a trailer for her son – days before all the publicity broke about dangerous levels of formaldehyde.  Now she’s worried about him keeping the trailer, but also has qualms about selling it to someone else.  “This is like history repeating itself,” she said. “People are all going to buy them, move into them and then start getting sick.”

Some buyers appear to have fewer qualms:  The highest bidder for the FEMA trailers says he already has buyers – retailers who intend to resell the trailers – for the 15,000 units he bought at auction, adding that formaldehyde is a “non-topic” that his buyers don’t even ask about.

This story vividly illustrates just how enduring the lifecycles of dangerous chemicals can be when our policies let chemicals get so deeply embedded into commerce without requiring they be shown to be safe.

It’s not an isolated incident.  In another recent front page Washington Post article, Lyndsey Layton documented the difficulties faced by the food industry in trying to replace a chemical used to make the lining used inside virtually every food can sold in America.  That chemical is bisphenol A (BPA) – a hormone-like compound which is found in the bodies of 93% of the American public, and is now suspected of interfering with human reproduction and early development.  Some 6 billion pounds of BPA are produced annually.

But back to formaldehyde, an estimated 46 billion pounds of which are made annually.

TSCA shares the blame

A year ago, in the House of Representatives’ first oversight hearing on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in decades, I testified about how the structural flaws in this 34-year-old law played a key role in allowing those FEMA trailers to be built and to deliver a second knock-out blow to Katrina victims.

The FEMA trailers were made using plywood imported from China.  That plywood is made using adhesives that release high levels of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.  China makes a low-formaldehyde product for export to Europe and Japan, and even for domestic use in China, because in those markets there are regulatory limits in place.  But they have a ready market here in the U.S. for the cheaper, more dangerous plywood because we have no such restrictions.  That plywood ended up in the FEMA trailers – and continues to be solid into countless other markets across the country.

In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was petitioned under TSCA to regulate this use of formaldehyde.  It denied the petition, citing its insufficient legal authority under TSCA and saying that further study is needed. 

Meanwhile, the tainted trailers live on and are now slated to expose yet another group of unwitting victims as they descend to the next sad stage in their lifecycle.

Ironically, unique among all federal environmental laws, TSCA is supposed to give EPA the ability to reduce risk along the entire lifecycle of a chemical, from its production and distribution, through its use and all the way to disposal of products containing it.  But TSCA made actually exercising any of that authority dependent on EPA proving a chemical presents an “unreasonable risk,” something it was unable to do even for asbestos back in 1991, and which it has never tried again.

It’s long past time we had a federal law that gives EPA the power to protect Americans from dangerous chemicals already on the market – and to prevent future repeats of episodes like the FEMA trailer debacle.  That will only happen when producers are compelled to prove their chemicals are safe as a condition for entering or remaining in commerce.

I urge you to join the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign in pressing for real reform of TSCA that will serve the next generation of Americans far better than it did the last.  And tell your members of Congress to do the same.

Richard Denison, PhD, is a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.