FEMA Gave Little Thought to Safety of Katrina TrailersMay 27, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Immediately following the Hurricane Katrina devastation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ordered about $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house Katrina victims. FEMA's requirements were detailed in a mere 25 lines, with minimal details regarding occupant safety. Today, industry and government experts say this is linked to a public health catastrophe involving 300,000 people, many children, who lived in FEMA homes and were—in many cases—exposed to high formaldehyde levels exceeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommended 15-minute exposure limit for workers. Fifteen minutes is the limit at which acute health symptoms begin to appear in sensitive individuals.
"I still can't believe that we bought a billion dollars' worth of product with a 25-line spec. There's not much you can do in 25 lines to protect life safety," said Joseph Hagerman, a Federation of American Scientists expert spearheading a $275 million effort, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, to develop new emergency housing. FEMA has also been criticized not responding sooner when it received reports of problems.
Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical that can cause nasal cancer, may be linked to leukemia, and worsens asthma and respiratory problems. Within months of moving into the trailers, residents began complaining about unusual sickness; breathing problems; burning eyes, noses and throats, and even death. Formaldehyde is emitted from the resins and glues used in many construction components, including particleboard flooring, plywood wall panels, composite wood cabinets, and laminated countertops. Emissions are greatest in warm weather and when trailers are newly constructed, such as the conditions experienced by Katrina victims.
According to a Washington Post review, the crisis was caused, in part, by weak government contracting, sloppy private construction, a gush of low-quality wood imports from China, and inconsistent regulation, to name a few. Currently, 17,000 plaintiffs who lived in FEMA units have alleged damaging health consequences—from respiratory problems to dozens of deaths and cancer cases—in a federal class-action lawsuit naming 64 trailer makers and the federal government.
It seems certain brands and sizes of trailers release more formaldehyde than others and a random sampling of trailers showed examples of every type and brand had very high and very low levels of formaldehyde. Average formaldehyde levels in the tested units ranged around 77 parts per billion (ppb), which is high enough to increase the chances of cancer and respiratory diseases.
Some say in 2005-2006, much of the nation's hardwood plywood came from Asia and was high in formaldehyde. China's share of the North American market has grown from four to nearly 40 percent since 2001 and "The most likely source of formaldehyde in the Katrina trailers and in all travel trailers are composite wood products . . . [and] the most likely source for those materials are imported products," primarily from China, said Elizabeth Whalen, director of corporate sustainability for Columbia Forest Products, of Portland, Ore., the association's largest U.S. plywood manufacturer.
FEMA relocated over 4,000 families after receiving 11,000 health complaints; however, about 22,000 of its trailers remain occupied despite a CDC recommendation that all residents be moved to safer housing. As of May 1, over 3,000 mobile homes were still occupied.