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FEMA Trailer Kids Face Years of Health Problems

May 28, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Children who lived in toxic Katrina trailers distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could face years of health problems.  The FEMA trailers were filled with toxic formaldehyde fumes, a chemical known to cause cancer and respiratory problems.  Thanks to FEMA's ineptitude and deception, children spent months - and in some cases years -  in the trailers.  Now health officials around the Gulf Coast are concerned that problems stemming from the dangerous formaldehyde fumes will follow these children for the rest of their lives.

Thousands of people in Mississippi and Louisiana were given FEMA trailers as temporary housing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But by 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers. Despite the reports, e-mails uncovered last summer during a congressional investigation into the trailers showed that FEMA lawyers told the agency to drag its feet on air quality testing. FEMA’s Office of General Council also advised the agency not to test the trailers because doing so “would imply FEMA’s ownership of the issue”.

Late last year, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and 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 is no way to measure formaldehyde levels in the blood, so there is no way to know how many children are at risk.  Experts say it generally takes 10-15 years after exposure for formaldehyde-related cancers to develop.  However, thousands of kids who lived in the toxic FEMA trailers are already showing signs of asthma and respiratory illnesses that could be tied to formaldehyde exposure.

Earlier this month, the CDC released a study based on a review of medical charts and interviews with 144 Mississippi children from August 2004 to August 2007. Two-thirds of the children lived in FEMA housing. While the study said the total number of medical visits to the five facilities by the children during the year before Katrina — 411 — was about the same as the number during the second year after the storm, visits for bronchitis-like symptoms increased from 22 percent to 31 percent. However, even the CDC admitted the conclusions that could be drawn from such a small study were limited, especially because of the special problems presented by Katrina’s aftermath.

The CDC is slated to start a bigger, five-year study next year that will up to 5,000 children in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, and CDC officials said it should begin next year.  However, the five year window of that study is too short to track many of the cancers that could be associated with formaldehyde in the toxic trailers.  

To that end, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, has introduced legislation to force FEMA and the CDC to provide medical monitoring to former FEMA trailer residents who are suffering from maladies that could be associated with formaldehyde.  

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that FEMA and the CDC plan to create a registry of those who stayed in trailers for possible future study. However, as families rush to leave their toxic FEMA trailers, the agencies say they are already having trouble keeping track of trailer residents.

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