FEMA's Toxic Trailers Exposed

WASHINGTON, DC, July 25, 2007 (ENS) - The Sierra Club is declaring a partial victory in its fight with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, over toxic formaldehyde found in some of the 120,000 mobile homes and travel trailers provided to hurricane survivors left homeless in 2005 by Katrina and Rita.

In response to a public outcry by the Sierra Club and others, FEMA has decided to re-evaluate its decision to continue distributing trailers known to have unsafe levels of formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a chemical used in paint and adhesives, and is classified as a "known carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said today, "Trailer residents and the Sierra Club have been pressing the agency to acknowledge the problem of formaldehyde outgassing in the trailers and to stop distributing the trailers until the agency could ensure that all trailers going out were safe."

FEMA travel trailers for temporary housing in Hancock County, Mississippi. September 2005. (Photo by Mark Wolfe courtesy FEMA)
Outgassing is the slow release of the formaldehyde gas from the paint and adhesives used in trailer construction.

"Dangerously high levels of formaldehyde found in many FEMA trailers have caused serious health problems for many trailer residents and are even suspected as the cause of several deaths," Pope said.

"FEMA's track record on this issue is far from good," said Pope. "They willfully ignored complaints of people suffering from formaldehyde exposure; they refused to investigate formaldehyde outgassing, despite the advice of their field staff to do so; and they manipulated testing conditions in the trailers to sway the results and present a minimized risk of formaldehyde exposure."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, says that formaldehyde, a colorless, pungent-smelling gas, can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing in some humans exposed at elevated levels - above 0.1 parts per million.

"High concentrations may trigger attacks in people with asthma," the EPA says. "It has also been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans."

FEMA Administrator David Paulison told the House Committee on Government Oversight on Thursday that the agency has been responsive. FEMA first responded to a formaldehyde complaint from a trailer resident in March 2006, and the trailer was replaced that same month, he said.

In May 2006, FEMA began consulting with other federal agencies and the mobile home industry, the agency established a system to address the complaints on a case-by-case basis, Paulison said.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison (Photo by Bill Koplitz courtesy FEMA)

In total, 58 trailers have been replaced due to formaldehyde complaints. In five other cases, residents were moved into rental housing.

FEMA trailer resident Lindsay Huckabee told the House panel that when she moved into the FEMA single-wide in Kiln, Mississippi in December 2005, she, her husband and her four children were all healthy.

But the trailer had "a very strong odor," she said, and almost immediately health problems began. Pregnant when she moved into the trailer, Huckabee delivered a month early when all her other children were full-term babies.

The entire family developed respiratory problems, severe nosebleeds, and caught every cold and virus going around. After being symptom-free for four years, one daughter developed severe asthma. Her husband, a non-smoker, developed a malignant tumor in his mouth.

Through her physician, who said he was treating many other trailer residents for similar illnesses, Huckabee was contacted by the Sierra Club. When a test was done on her trailer in April, it showed formaldehyde at well above the level believed to be harmful to humans, Huckabee told the House panel.

"When we told FEMA about the test, we met much opposition," Huckabee testified. "FEMA representatives were rude when I called them. I was forced to call five different representatives, and my request for a new mobile home was lost twice before anything was done to help solve my problem."

Finally, FEMA agreed to give the family another mobile home. The Sierra Club had it tested for formaldehyde and results came back higher than EPA-recommended limit of 0.1 parts per million, but lower than the previous trailer.

When a FEMA inspector saw the testing instrument hanging in the replacement trailer, Huckabee testified that he said, "people were claiming to have high formaldehyde levels so they could get bigger and better trailers" but he could not produce evidence to back that claim.

FEMA Administrator Paulison told the panel, "It is very possible that the observed illness pattern is due to multiple factors including other exposures, other environmental conditions in the area, or just simply the very close living conditions in a travel trailer."

He did not acknowledge that there is a federally established limit for formaldehyde exposure of 0.1 parts per million, but said more study is needed to determine a safe level of exposure.

Displaced New Orleans resident unpacks in a FEMA travel trailer. April 2006. (Photo by Marvin Nauman courtesy FEMA)
"When FEMA took on the role of landlord for the thousands of people, they took on the responsibility to provide a safe, fit home for these people," said Huckabee. "This temporary housing should have given people time to get on their feet again, and even save some money for a permanent home. Instead we are spending so much on medical bills and prescriptions, we are actually moving backwards."

Paulison said Friday that health experts at the Centers for Disease Control, CDC, and Department of Homeland Security's Office of Health Affairs will conduct a preliminary field study that will test air quality conditions in the mobile housing units "under real-life conditions." Testing began on Tuesday.

In addition, said Paulison, "the CDC team is comprehensively reviewing known research in order to provide FEMA with advice about the safety of environmental conditions in travel trailers. We are also looking into engineering solutions that may be available effectively to remove environmental pollutants from the trailers."

As the first group to discover the toxicity of FEMA trailers, Pope says the Sierra Club has taken a lead role in fighting for better disaster assistance and emergency housing.

Testing by the Sierra Club in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama showed that 88 percent of trailers tested in 2006 and 2007 had formaldehyde levels above the EPA's recommended limit of 0.1 parts per million.

"The EPA's own testing showed that FEMA trailers had average formaldehyde levels three times higher than the EPA standard," Pope pointed out. He said that tests currently being conducted by the Sierra Club and Texas Wildlife and Parks on FEMA trailers in Texas are also showing high formaldehyde levels.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.