Formaldehyde Makes Trailers Toxic | Chemical & Engineering News
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Web Date: February 19, 2008

Formaldehyde Makes Trailers Toxic

Health concerns force government agency to find new temporary housing for 38,000 hurricane-displaced families
Department: Government & Policy
Paulison, left, and Gerberding discuss findings about formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers during a Feb. 14 news conference in New Orleans.
Credit: FEMA
Paulison, left, and Gerberding discuss findings about formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers during a Feb. 14 news conference in New Orleans.
Credit: FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is being harshly criticized for its slow response to evidence that trailers used to house Gulf Coast hurricane victims are contaminated with high levels of formaldehyde, an industrial chemical classified by the government as a probable carcinogen.

"FEMA first received complaints about health problems and high formaldehyde levels nearly two years ago," says Rep. Gene Taylor (D- Miss.). "If FEMA would have taken the complaints seriously from the very beginning, this issue could have been resolved already. They must now act swiftly to find adequate housing for those living in trailers across Mississippi and Louisiana, instead of at the pace they moved when first receiving complaints."

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison announced on Feb. 14 that the agency would rush to find new temporary housing for about 38,000 families who have been living in the government-issued trailers since shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region in 2005.

The agency was forced to act after the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) discovered that formaldehyde fumes from hundreds of trailers were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most homes.

"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," Paulison says.

CDC tested 519 randomly selected trailers between Dec. 21, 2007, and Jan. 23 and found average levels of formaldehyde in all units of about 77 ppb, much higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration commonly seen in modern homes. Levels were as high as 590 ppb. U.S. health officials say long-term exposure to high levels of the chemical can be linked to increased risks of respiratory illness and cancer.

"The levels in many of these trailers and mobile homes are higher than would be expected indoors," CDC Director Julie Gerberding says. "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 says scientists will seek to determine how and why levels varied among different models of FEMA trailers. Formaldehyde, a preservative used for embalming, is also used in composite-wood and particle-board construction materials. Under hot, humid conditions it can leak into the air.

After health complaints began to surface in the spring of 2006, about 1,000 families in Louisiana asked FEMA to move them to new quarters, and lawyers for a group of storm victims asked a federal judge to order FEMA to test for fumes.

"Finally, CDC has reached the conclusion that it should have made more than a year ago???that because of high levels of formaldehyde fumes, travel trailers are not safe for anyone to live in," says House Science & Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.). "This confirmation is long overdue."

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, says her panel will soon launch a thorough investigation into the federal government's disaster housing strategies. "This is such gross incompetence. It's been deny, delay, and ignore for two years. The disaster housing program is a disaster itself," she declares.

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