Active Illness in Children due to Passive Politics: Is This Another Tuskegee Experiment?

The trailers FEMA sent to Katrina refugees were taxpayer-funded carcinogen containers -- with air quality so poor that the agency was issued an order to stop using them due to the high levels of formaldehyde.
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Today: The Consequences

FEMA trailers, sick babies ... government studies to follow the consequences. In August 2007, I remarked on the MSNBC article about FEMA trailers that were sent to help Hurricane Katrina and Rita disaster victims. These trailers were taxpayer-funded carcinogen containers -- with air quality so poor that the FEMA agency was issued an immediate order to stop using them due to the high levels of formaldehyde.

As discussed, formaldehyde is an airborne chemical used in composite wood and plywood panels in expensive furniture and in the 'walls' of these FEMA trailers. It is a human carcinogen, or a known cancer-causing substance, according to the EPA. Young people and the elderly are most at risk from respiratory, sinus, intestinal, skin rashes, insomnia and headaches -- all signs of formaldehyde poisoning.

Today, babies and children -- the most vulnerable -- are being diagnosed in record numbers with asthma, labored breathing and other respiratory illnesses. The number of children with respiratory consequences if their mothers were pregnant while living in a trailer, or if their toddler moments were spent in a trailer has been skyrocketing. Doctors cannot conclusively link asthma to the residency in a FEMA trailer, but it is indicated that thousands of children will face lifelong health problems since these trailers had up to 5x the safe level of formaldehyde!

Since respiratory problems are an early sign of exposure, it is clear that if you listen to experts we should all be alarmed ... it takes 10 to 15 years for cancer to develop. What will it be like if we find a cluster of cancers in 10 year old children a decade from now? Will we be prepared for the long-term anger? Will this be viewed as another opportunity for scientists to "measure results"? Will there be a plan to treat these children as they grow?

One can argue that it is inconclusive until proven otherwise. But the otherwise, in this case, means significant health problems or death.

Back Story

We have to remember that indoor air quality is a key tenet of biological health. Temporary housing provided by our government for disaster victims should have been more carefully screened. In 2006, the FEMA agency detected the chemical in many of the 143,000 trailers but until a public outcry, a strong push to get residents out of the trailers did not begin until February 2008. Congress and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognize the danger in the delay and hopefully will begin to put a plan in place to treat these children as they grow.

The five year study plan is inadequate -- it is my belief that a decade long study is needed to ensure that these children receive reduced cost health care and treatment. They have already been victimized by a natural disaster. And victimized by unsafe housing options. And it would be tragic to ignore the potentially greater consequences -- including childhood obesity from an asthmatic child being unable to run or play -- which could be fatal.

Mississippi's Rep. Bennie Thompson has taken the first step in the right direction to propose monitoring the health of a few thousand children over several years, but a basic tenet should be a free annual health exam for those children who stayed in a FEMA trailer to determine if there are any effects. If these children don't get treatment, or "receive help" from the government, this will be viewed as another failure of the government to handle this natural disaster.

This needs to be handled immediately, and not after millions of dollars are spent on studies to determine the next steps.

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