So, after denying for years that health problems of trailer occupants were caused by high levels of formaldehyde, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, today is hastening to move people out of 35,000 trailers and into other accomodations.
Formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde may cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. It is possible that people with asthma may be more sensitive to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde, according the federal Agency for Toxic Substances.
"As a result of preliminary findings FEMA will be taking additional actions to provide for the safety and well being of the residents of these travel trailers by finding them alternative housing," said FEMA Administrator David Paulison. "FEMA is leaning forward and will continue to act and provide information to our residents in an expedited manner."
"We're not going to wait for the final results but we're going to work to continue or expand our actions with the residents that need to be relocated," Paulison said. "We had a peak of almost 144,000 families in these travel trailers and 105,000 of those have already moved out."
FEMA Director David Paulison and CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding announce the formaldehyde findings. February 14, 2008 (Photo by Manuel Broussard courtesy FEMA)
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, which conducted the testing, said now is the time to get people out of these trailers.
"The levels in many of these trailers and mobile homes are higher than would be expected indoors," said Gerberding. "Since these levels were found in December and January, and we know that higher temperatures can cause formaldehyde levels to go up, we think it's wise for people to be relocated before the hot weather arrives in summer."
Gerberding said people who are sick should be on a rush list for removal from the trailers. "It would be beneficial for people who are displaying symptoms as well as households with children, elderly persons, or occupants with chronic respiratory illnesses to receive priority consideration for alternate housing," she said.
CDC's preliminary evaluation of a random sample of 519 travel trailers and mobile homes tested between December 21, 2007 and January 23, 2008 showed average levels of formaldehyde in all units of about 77 parts per billion, ppb.
These levels are is higher than expected in indoor air, where levels are commonly in the range of 10-20 ppb.
Some formaldehyde levels in the trailers were more than seven times the average of 77 ppb. Levels measured ranged from three ppb to 590 ppb.
"Long-term exposure to levels in this range can be linked to an increased risk of cancer, and as levels rise above this range, there can also be a risk of respiratory illness," the CDC said.
Various lawsuits have been filed in federal court in New Orleans against the manufacturers of the trailers by occupants who have suffered health problems. They were combined into a single legal action in November 2007, and the plaintiffs have until March 18 to file a master complaint
According to Tony Buzbee, of the Buzbee Law Firm, in Galveston, Texas, "While we question FEMA's handling of this health issue, we agree with the agency that the ultimate responsibility for the safety of families using these trailers falls to the manufacturers."
"We allege that the manufacturers produced and delivered tens of thousands of unsafe and hazardous travel trailers, at a cost to our government of more than $2.4 billion, and we urge the federal government to investigate the manufacturers of these units immediately," Buzbee said.
FEMA travel trailers for hurricane victims at Harrell Stadium in New Orleans. (Photo by Robert Kauffman courtesy FEMA)
"As we believe the litigation will show, these trailer manufacturers knew of and failed to disclose the health risks of putting displaced families in these units," he said.
"Our clients report a wide range of symptoms that are consistent with formaldehyde exposure and consistent with the CDC's reports," said Buzbee. "The time has come for the government to force the industry to explain how and why these housing units were so toxic to the displaced families living in them."
On February 19, CDC public health professionals and FEMA representatives will begin the process of hand-delivering to occupants who participated in the study a letter with their individual test results. These teams will answer residents' health questions and help occupants understand their housing options.
Public availability sessions to explain the overall test results are planned for Louisiana trailer residents the week of February 25 and for Mississippi trailer residents the week of March 3.
FEMA previously announced a plan to close all group sites and relocate residents by June 1 and will continue this activity, Paulison said.
During the first week of February, 983 households moved out of temporary housing and FEMA continues to move between 800 and 1000 households out, on average, per week.
CDC and FEMA recommend that Gulf Coast families living in travel trailers and mobile homes spend as much time outdoors in fresh air as possible. Residents should open windows to let fresh air in whenever possible, and try to maintain the temperature inside their travel trailers or mobile homes at the lowest comfortable level. Higher temperatures can cause greater release of formaldehyde.
The two agencies have established toll-free hotlines. FEMA employees are available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381, or TTY 1-800-462-7585. CDC specialists will respond to health concerns at 1-800-CDC-INFO.
The indoor air quality assessment is one of several actions CDC has initiated to assist FEMA in protecting the health of temporary housing residents. The other public health activities include:
The CDC is reconvening a panel of experts to identify and advise on health issues that could be associated with long-term residence in travel trailers.
The agency plans a long-term study of children who resided in FEMA trailers and mobile homes in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Finally, the CDC will be assessing formaldehyde levels across different models and types of unoccupied trailers to identify the factors that reduce or heighten those levels. This assessment also involves identifying cost-effective ways to reduce or lower formaldehyde levels and concentrations in temporary housing environments.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.