The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Our Federal Government: Making a Bad Situation Worse

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The benevolent federal government has found a way to spend almost one billion dollars exposing its citizens to a deadly carcinogen in the name of a humanitarian effort. 

In an attempt to provide 18 months of free housing to Hurricane Katrina victims, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) has deployed more than 160,000 trailers and mobile homes across the Gulf Coast region, costing an average of $65,000 each.  The agency has already come under fire for the 11,000 trailers sitting empty at Hope Municipal Airport in Arkansas.  However, the victims who remain homeless might be better off.  First, some of the victims were issued key sets that could open as many as 50 different trailers, creating a serious security risk in heavily-populated trailer parks.  Worse yet, victims living in trailers have been subjected to a deadly carcinogen called Formaldehyde.  

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that was used in a wide variety of materials within the trailers, including the composite wood and plywood panels.  The Sierra Club began testing the trailers in April to find out whether the formaldehyde levels exceed safety limits.  

The 44 trailers tested so far were found to have levels as high as 0.34 parts per million – almost equivalent to that which would be experienced by a professional embalmer.  Only four have not been higher than 0.1 parts per million, above which is considered to be “an elevated level,” capable of causing watery eyes, burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, and respiratory distress.  Even higher levels of formaldehyde were detected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).  There is sufficient evidence to suggest that it causes nasopharyngeal cancer, which is relatively rare in developed countries.  Limited evidence suggests that it causes cancer of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses, and there is “strong but not sufficient evidence” that it leads to leukemia.  Symptoms do not always surface immediately, meaning the overall harm caused by the trailers will not be known for years.

Trailers are not even the  most cost effective way of housing those in need.  Three-hundred square foot, traditional-style, cottage-structures can be constructed faster than a trailer for almost half the cost.  These “cottages” can also be incorporated into the rebuilding effort much better than the ugly, stand-alone trailers of FEMA. 

Hurricane victims have filed a class action lawsuit in Louisiana against FEMA and the trailer manufacturers.  The case is sure to taxpayers even more money in legal fees.   

This unfortunate event reiterates the need for the federal government to play a secondary role in disaster relief and recovery.  People were stranded in dire circumstances, but many of them would be better off had they never been helped by the federal government.  State and regional government response teams and charitable organizations (which are usually more accountable to their voluntary donors than the federal government is to taxpayers) are better positioned to provide accommodations for the displaced in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Gary Barnett

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