By Sean J. Miller - 12/27/09 11:53 PM EST
Louisiana Democrats are hoping to capitalize on a festering local
health issue in their campaign against Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).
The threat posed by so-called “toxic trailers” distributed by FEMA to hurricane survivors could be a critical issue in the state’s Senate race.
Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly used in building materials and household products, was found in elevated levels in thousands of trailers distributed by FEMA after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In lawsuits filed against the manufacturers, victims said the levels of formaldehyde in the trailers caused their health to deteriorate.
Democrats say Vitter has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from releasing a report that concludes formaldehyde is dangerous. Vitter’s office, however, has argued that more testing is needed before a final decision on new regulations is reached.
The World Health Organization has linked formaldehyde, which is also used in embalming, to certain cancers and classifies it as a known human carcinogen. But the EPA, which has been studying the issue since 1997, lists formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.”
The agency is close to issuing new regulations on formaldehyde, which critics say is the reason why Vitter placed a hold on Yale University chemist Paul Anastas's nomination for assistant administrator of the EPA. President Barack Obama nominated Anastas for the post in May and he was unanimously approved by the Senate Environment and Pubic Works Committee in July. Final Senate confirmation for Anastas has been delayed because of Vitter.
Vitter’s spokesman told the New Orleans Times-Picayune the senator placed the hold because he wants the EPA to submit to a review of its formaldehyde risk assessment by the National Academy of Sciences.
“Because of the FEMA trailer debacle, we need to get absolutely reliable information to the public about formaldehyde risk as soon as possible,” spokesman Joel DiGrado told the paper. "That's why Sen. Vitter started working with a bipartisan group over a year ago to have the National Academy of Sciences weigh in."
Vitter’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The EPA disagrees with Vitter's position and said it believes additional research is unnecessary.
“The research has been done and we are ready to move forward,” EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy told the industry publication Chemistry World.
Democrats say Vitter just wants to muddy the waters for the formaldehyde industry, which has given thousands to his re-election campaign. Franck called it another example of putting the industry's concerns “ahead of Louisiana families.”
Meanwhile, Vitter has resisted engaging on the formaldehyde issue and is instead focused on railing against the healthcare reform bill. He recently gave a10-chart presentation on the Senate floor, where he claimed the bill would break his state’s budget, cost jobs, and allow federal funding of abortion, among other things.
But Democrats in Louisiana are convinced that local issues such as formaldehyde could overshadow the national debate. “This is a single local issue with dramatic consequences for real people,” Franck said.