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By June, headaches had become so commonplace among the students at one of the Léogâne schools that even the Léogâne mayor had heard about the problem. Like the students and their parents, Mayor Santos Alexis chalked the problem up to the heat and lack of ventilation inside the trailers. But laboratory tests conducted as part of our investigation found worrying levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen whose possible symptoms include headaches, in one of the trailers.
Trailer manufacturer Clayton Homes is currently being sued by several people who say they were “exposed to injurious levels of formaldehyde” while living in trailers Clayton sold to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, between 2005 and 2007.
The Clinton Foundation has refused requests for documentation of any bidding process involved in its contract with Clayton Homes, owned by Berkshire Hathaway. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the contract was worth $1 million – or $50,000 per classroom, which is well above the price of many units at a recent housing exposition that the Clinton Foundation supported in Haiti.
Paul Thomas, the Clayton Homes point person for the project, declined to be interviewed for this article and when asked for more information about the contract, deferred to the Clinton Foundation.
IHRC spokesperson Florence St-Leger Liautaud told The Gazette that she could not comment on any specific commission projects.
By mid-June 2011, two of the four Léogâne-area schools where the Clinton Foundation classrooms were installed had prematurely ended classes for the summer because the temperature in the classrooms often exceeds 38 degrees Celsius and one school had yet to open for lack of any latrines. Temperatures in Haiti usually rise to 35C or higher in June, but many Haitian homes – typically built of concrete, with lots of openings for ventilation – are designed to keep inhabitants cool.
Sitting in the Grade 6 classroom at one of these schools, the Institut Nationale Haitiano-Caribbean (INHAC), Judith Seide, explained she and her classmates regularly suffer from painful headaches in their new Clinton Foundation classroom. Every day, she says, her “head hurts and I feel it spinning and have to stop moving otherwise I’d fall.”
Classmate Mondialie Cineas, who just wrote her final exams and dreams of becoming a nurse, says that three times a week the teacher gives her and her classmates painkillers so that they can make it through the school day. “At noon, the class gets so hot, kids get headaches,” the 12-year old says, wiping beads of sweat from her brow. She is worried because “the kids feel sick, can’t work, can’t advance to succeed.”
Innocent Sylvain, the school janitor at INHAC, who spends more time than anyone else in the new trailer classrooms, is suffering from acute eye irritation. One of is eyes is completely bloodshot and he says “they itch and burn.”
Any number of environmental factors might be contributing to these health issues, but similar symptoms were experienced by those living in the FEMA trailers that the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde.
Samples of the air in 12 of the Léogâne trailers, at three of the four schools, were analyzed by California-based laboratory Assay Technologies. The lab found levels of formaldehyde in the trailer being used as INHAC’s Grade 6 classroom to be 250 parts per billion – two and a half times the level at which the CDC warned FEMA trailer residents they could face adverse health effects, like asthma and chronic lung disease. The chemical was recently added to the U.S. Department of Health’s list of carcinogens, based on studies linking exposure to formaldehyde with increased incidences of rare types of cancers. And studies have shown that children are particularly vulnerable to its respiratory effects. (The other 11 trailers tested all had concentrations at levels considered normal for mobile homes.)
Randy Maddalena, a scientist specializing in indoor air research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he found the test results “concerning.” The high level of formaldehyde in one of the 12 trailers tested was comparable to the formaldehyde emissions problems documented in about 9 per cent of similar models of mobile home supplied by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, according to Maddalena.
The formaldehyde found in the Grade 6 classroom is “a very high level” of the carcinogen, he said.