February 14, 2008

FEMA Trailers Found to be Toxic

Victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana and Mississippi are being urged to quickly vacate trailers provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) due to health concerns from toxic levels of formaldehyde.  

The U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC) performed tests on 519 trailers and found fumes at levels five times as high as those in most contemporary homes. Some of the trailers had levels nearly 40 times as high, raising concerns of potential respiratory problems among the trailer's residents.

CDC director Mike McGeehin said FEMA should move people out quickly, with priority given to families with children, the elderly and anyone with respiratory and other chronic conditions.

"We do not want people exposed to this for very much longer," McGeehin told AP.

According to the CDC, formaldehyde is a common chemical in our environment.  It is a colorless gas with a pungent smell used in the production of plywood and resins. Common sources include fiberglass, carpets, permanent press fabrics, paper products, and some household cleaners. It is also found in manufactured wood products used in new mobile homes, cigarettes, gas cookers, open fireplaces and smog.

Formaldehyde has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There are currently no federal safety standard for formaldehyde fumes in homes, however McGeehin said levels found in the FEMA trailers are high enough to cause burning eyes and respiratory problems for those with asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants.

The CDC tests included only formaldehyde, and did not prove that people became sick from the fumes.  However, in 2006 some occupants began reporting nosebleeds and headaches.  It was later determined the complaints were linked to formaldehyde.

FEMA officials said last May the trailers met industry standards and rejected claims by environmentalists that the trailers posed serious health risks to residents.  However, by August 1,000 families in Louisiana had made relocation requests to FEMA. In November, lawyers for a group of residents asked a federal judge to order tests for the toxic fumes, and CDC and FEMA contracted the firm Bureau Veritas North America to perform air sample tests.

The air samples were taken from 358 travel trailers, 82 park models and 79 mobile homes from Dec. 21 through Jan. 23. Last week the analysis came back and found average levels of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air, significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion found in newer homes. 

McGeehin said the highest concentrations were in travel trailers, which are smaller and more poorly ventilated.  Indeed, levels in some trailers were as high as 590 parts per billion.

Indoor air temperature is a significant factor in formaldehyde levels, independent of trailer make or model, CDC officials told AP. McGeehin said that was the reason CDC wants the residents out before summer.

Upon hearing the results last week, Democrat legislators accused FEMA of manipulating scientific research in order to downplay the hazards of formaldehyde in the trailers.  Initially, FEMA had taken air samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days, and then compared the results with federal standards for short-term exposure, said lawmakers.

Legislators also said the CDC ignored research from, and further demoted, one of its own experts who concluded any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk.

However, a spokesman for the CDC denied the claim.

FEMA has already moved 105,445 households out of temporary housing units as residents return home or move into long-term housing solutions. During the week of February 6, 2008, 983 households moved out of temporary housing and FEMA continues to move between 800 and 1000 households out 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, open windows, and try to maintain indoor temperature at the lowest comfortable level. 

The two agencies have established toll-free hotlines.  FEMA employees are available to discuss housing concerns at 1-866-562-2381, and CDC specialists will respond to health-related concerns at 1-800- CDC-INFO.

The CDC said the indoor air quality assessment is one of several actions the agency has initiated to assist FEMA in protecting the health of temporary housing residents.  Other public health activities include:

"¢ Reconvening a panel of experts to identify and advise on health issues that could be associated with long-term residence in temporary housing units, such as travel trailers.
"¢ 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
"¢ Plans for a long-term study of children who resided in FEMA trailers and mobile homes in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Additional information about the CDC's FEMA trailer study is available at the CDC Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehhe/trailerstudy