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Scrapbook: Success in Sierra Club's Five-Year Formaldehyde Fight

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July 20, 2010

Success in Sierra Club's Five-Year Formaldehyde Fight

Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House

Little-noticed while the ongoing BP Oil Disaster dominated the headlines in early July was President Obama's signing of a critical piece of environmental legislationa landmark bill that will protect consumers by enacting national standards for formaldehyde in composite wood products.

The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act, which passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support, was signed into law July 7.


"Without the action of Congress, better regulation of formaldehyde could have taken many years longer," says Becky Gillette, above, a longtime volunteer leader for the Sierra Club's Mississippi Chapter who now directs the Club's Formaldehyde Campaign.

With Gillette spearheading the effort, the Sierra Club has been working on formaldehyde issues in earnest ever since tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents were sickened by formaldehyde poisoning in FEMA-issued trailers across the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Gillette earned the moniker "The Erin Brockovich of Formaldehyde" for her groundbreaking work uncovering and publicizing the toxic FEMA trailers and compelling congressional action. Below, a FEMA trailer park in Hope, Arkansas.


As the first organization to publicize the toxicity of formaldehyde-laden emergency housing after Hurricane Katrina, the Sierra Club has taken a lead role in fighting for better disaster assistance and stronger regulations.

The Sierra Club and a broad coalition of groups and citizens concerned about public health submitted a petition to the EPA asking that the agency adopt the more protective formaldehyde standards already in place in California and extend them to manufactured housing. Key coalition partners included the United Steelworkers of America and the National Center for Healthy Housing.


Tom Neltner, above, former co-chair of the Club's Toxics Committee, was responsible for writing the petition, which was signed by some 4,000 citizens. "Not only did Tom author the petition, he worked with industry groups on the legislation," says Gillette, "and it was critical to have industry behind the bill."

In typically modest fashion, Neltner says, "Becky did all the hard work with her amazing efforts testing the trailers and helping people understand the issue. And Sierra Club Communications team member Oliver Bernstein did his usual outstanding job of networking and facilitating; he made the connections with me based on earlier work I'd done on lead in toys and air fresheners."

Neltner handled the petition, negotiations with industry, and dealings with the legislature until another job pulled him awayat which point Ed Hopkins, the Club's Washington, D.C., director, took over. "This campaign was a classic example of Sierra Club volunteers and staff working together," Neltner says.


While the new law can't make up for the illnesses of tens of thousands of families housed in Katrina trailers with high formaldehyde levels, Gillette says "it's encouraging to see that sometimes our government works for the people instead of for the profits of big corporations. Congress has taken a major step to protect people from unsafe levels of formaldehyde."

The bill was a truly bipartisan effort, co-sponsored in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), and in the House of Representatives by Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Vernon Elhers (R-MI). House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) were also instrumental in shepherding the legislation through to the finish line.

Photo by Oliver Bernstein 

"This bill demonstrates how a bipartisan collaborative effort can benefit the health and safety of all Americans," says Leslie Fields, above, the Sierra Club's national director for Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships. "Industry, community activists, and environmentalists worked hand-in-hand to ensure that proper standards for these products will be promulgated in the future."

This success, says Gillette, "really proves the value of the nationwide network of Sierrans who signed the formaldehyde petition and worked in coalition with other environmental groups. Tom Neltner, as a chemical engineer and attorney, provided the technical expertise that we needed. About ten Sierrans helped do the testing. And support for the legislation might never have materialized had the Sierra Club not provided funds for formaldehyde testing in FEMA trailers."

Gillette also credits Club members Jesse James Fineran, a FEMA whistleblower on the issue, and Dr. Lou Finkle of Gulfport, Miss., along with former FEMA trailer residents Lindsay Huckabee, Paul Stewart, and Rev. James Harris, Jr., who testified in Congress about the health problems their families experienced living in FEMA trailers and had "a huge impact putting this issue on the national radar screen."


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