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FEMA Trailers May Create Lifelong Health Problems

May 28, 2008

The nightmare seems to continue for the victims of Hurricane Katrina like Gina Bouffanie and her daughter. Since leaving their FEMA trailer Bouffanie’s daughter has suffered severe breathing problems.

“It’s just the sickness. I can’t get rid of it. It just keeps coming back,” said Bouffanie, 27, who was pregnant with her now 15-month-old daughter, Lexi, while living in the trailer. ” If I had known it would get her sick, I wouldn’t have stayed in the trailer for so long.”

Her daughter was diagnosed with severe asthma and must inhale medicine from a breathing device.

Her asthma cannot be conclusively linked to the trailer, but the temporary housing supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency contained formaldehyde fumes up to five times the safe level. And now doctors fear she is among tens of thousands of youngsters who may face lifelong health problems.

Many of the 143,000 trailers sent to the Gulf Coast in 2006 contained the chemical, used in the interior glue. But a push to get residents out of them, spearheaded by FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did not begin until this past February.

The agencies’ delay in recognizing the danger is being compounded by studies that will be virtually useless, according to members of Congress and CDC insiders. And there is still no plan to treat children as they continue to grow.

“It’s tragic that when people most need the protection, they are actually going from one disaster to a health disaster that might be considered worse,” said Christopher De Rosa, assistant director for toxicology and risk assessment at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the CDC.

She believes given the longer-term implications of exposure that went on for a significant period of time, people should be followed through time for possible effects.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies Formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance. Respiratory problems are an early sign of exposure.

Young children are said to be at particular risk. Sadly, thousands who lived in trailers will be in the prime of life in the 10 to 15 years doctors believe it takes cancer to develop.

So far, FEMA and CDC reports have drawn criticism.

The records of 144 Mississippi children, some of whom lived in trailers and others who did not, were released in a CDC study on May 8. However, the study was confined to children who had at least one doctor’s visit for respiratory illness before Katrina. It was largely inconclusive, finding children who went to doctors before the August 2005 storm were still visiting them two years after.

Officials said beginning next year is a bigger, five-year CDC study that will include up to 5,000 children in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. But members of Congress point to the decade or longer it could take for cancer to develop and say a five-year look is inadequate.

“Monitoring the health of a few thousand children over the course of a few years is a step in the right direction, but we need commitment,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Thompson has introduced legislation to force FEMA and CDC to provide health exams for trailer residents who believe formaldehyde made them ill. The bill is similar to $108 million legislation for workers who labored at the World Trade Center site.

“Preliminary exams alone for trailer residents could cost more than the trade center bill,” said Arch Carson, professor of occupational medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. But he said class-action lawsuits over the formaldehyde – at least one has been filed – could be even more expensive, costing many billions of dollars.

Carson said it would be best for the government to get its act together now.

In Mississippi and Louisiana more than 22,000 FEMA trailers and mobile homes are still being used.

FEMA and the CDC say they will create a registry of those who stayed in trailers for possible future study. But they admit that the task of keeping track of everyone is made difficult by the rush to get families into other housing.

Some parents are running low on money and options, like the parents of McKenzie Whitney, a 1-year-old girl with wavy auburn hair.

McKenzie was born into a FEMA trailer and spent the first 10 months of her life there. Her mother, Kacey Whitney, 22, a housekeeper, and her father, Kevin Whitney, 30, a maintenance man, juggle the pressures of post-hurricane life with tending to the child.

“Sunday night when I was going to work, as I was walking up to the front door, she just threw up. She had a fever. We went to the hospital and they wound up keeping her overnight,” the girl’s mother said. “She’s always had a cold, always.”

Like Lexi, McKenzie is treated with a nebulizer, a boxy breathing machine that turns medication into mist. It is prescribed to patients with moderate to severe symptoms, and requires children to inhale for 20 minutes.

Deven Galloway, 27, lived in a FEMA trailer in Bay St. Louis for seven months with 4-year-old son DeReion. The boy also uses a nebulizer for asthma.

“One day he was like, ‘I’m going to take more so I can go ahead and be finished for a long time,’” said his mother. “I had to tell him it didn’t work that way.”

According to Dr. Shama Shakir, a Bay St. Louis pediatrician who treats Lexi and Kacey at the Coastal Family Health Center, before the storm she prescribed nebulizers about twice weekly. Lately, she is doing so up to 12 times a week.

Shakir said even after giving these children the most potent of steroids and antibiotics they still have the symptoms. “I worry about what will become of these children long-term.”

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