ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

FEMA Trailer Children Sickened

A FEMA trailer sits on the Lee family's lot in in Coden, Ala. Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008. (Bill Starling/ProPublica)A review of medical records released this week by the Children’s Health Fund, a New York City non-profit, has renewed concerns about the health of children who lived in the formaldehyde-contaminated trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided to Hurricane Katrina victims. The report suggests that children who lived in these trailers may have had more colds, allergies and skin irritations, as well as developmental and behavioral problems.

The review was small—just 261 children were included—and it looked only at the clinic’s own patients, who had come to the clinic with various health problems. But its findings bolster the need for the comprehensive children’s study the Centers for Disease Control has been promising to do for more than a year, according to experts inside and outside the agency.

The Children’s Health Fund study “just doesn’t have the statistical power required for any reasonable conclusions to be reached,” said Christopher De Rosa, a CDC toxicologist who was removed from his senior position after criticizing his agency’s response to the formaldehyde problem. “There needs to be a registry established, which people have been repeatedly urging for.”

Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that the CDC hasn’t begun creating the registry it needs to help locate the 6,000 children it hopes to enroll in its study. It also hasn’t settled on a scientific methodology. Most of the hurricane survivors moved out of the trailers months or even years ago.

The Children’s Health Fund study focused on children living in a trailer park that FEMA set up in Baton Rouge. More than 40 percent of them were diagnosed with upper respiratory problems that could have been caused by breathing formaldehyde fumes from the glue used in building materials inside the trailers. The children also had a rate of anemia twice as high as children living in New York City homeless shelters.

A CDC spokeswoman, Bernadette Burden, told ProPublica that the Children’s Health Fund study “validates the concerns we share about the health of the children in the Gulf Region.”

Burden said the CDC plans to request funding for its study by the end of the year. It won’t begin recruiting participants until the spring of 2009, more than three years after people began complaining about the formaldehyde.

Before it can begin tracking down the children who lived in the trailers, the agency needs a FEMA database that includes names of trailer occupants and their pre-Katrina addresses. FEMA has no information about where the occupants live now.

“We have been in contact with FEMA in the last two days; we are still in discussions with them on the release of the data, but we have not confirmed a date for the transfer to occur,” Burden said.

CDC officials have told ProPublica that they asked for the database in June.

According to Ashley Small, a FEMA spokeswoman, FEMA is especially concerned about protecting the privacy of the people in its database.

“We have worked with the CDC…so that both agencies understand the type of information that will be shared, the applicant information that must be protected, and the intent for which the information will be used,” Small said.

The Children’s Health Fund is also urging FEMA to give its database to the Louisiana state government, so it too can track the children’s health.

“It is critical that we locate and treat every child with immediate medical need,” the report said. “Our best hope to quickly identify and locate these children rests with FEMA.”