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FEMA Trailer Tests Questioned by Critics, Who Argue That Toxicity of Trailers is Already Proven

Dec 18, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it would finally begin testing toxic trailers distributed to Gulf Coast Hurricane victims for formaldehyde fumes this Friday.   But while FEMA was busy patting itself on the back, many where wondering why FEMA needs to bother testing the toxic trailers at all.   There is already plenty of evidence – including the results of tests conducted by other organizations – that the FEMA trailers are too dangerous for human inhabitation.  

Tests of the toxic FEMA trailers have already been delayed for nearly two months, although FEMA has been dragging its feet in regard to the trailers since concerns over their safety were first raised in 2006.  When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of those made homeless moved into FEMA trailers.   By 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers that residents where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers.  The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers.   But FEMA tried to ignore the problem.   E-mails uncovered earlier this year 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”.

Formaldehyde is an invisible gas that is known to cause cancer. It can also cause other illnesses ranging from nose bleeds to chronic bronchitis. The chemical was used as glue in the FEMA trailers and mobile homes. At least two deaths of FEMA trailer residents have been linked to formaldehyde exposure. 

Even without official test results from FEMA, one look at the “Toxic Trailers” website makes it apparent that the shelters are dangerous.   The website is filled with the testimony of FEMA trailer residents who have either suffered from health problems themselves, or have seen their loved ones stricken since moving into the trailers. 

What’s more, tests for formaldehyde fumes have already been done on some of the FEMA trailers and mobile homes inhabited by hurricane victims. According to a report posted on, the Sierra Club conducted independent tests on 600 FEMA trailers and mobile homes being used along the Gulf Coast in 2006. In some extreme cases, formaldehyde levels in the structures were 70 times higher than what is considered safe. Of the FEMA trailers and mobile homes tested by the Sierra Club, only 23 had formaldehyde levels that “were at less than twice the acceptable long-term exposure limit” of 0.008 ppm, and only 9 where below that standard. The majority of the FEMA trailers had levels of .56 ppm, while the formaldehyde detected in mobile homes was also above the threshold, in some cases as high as 0.1 ppm.

Considering all of this, it’s no wonder that many people feel that the imminent FEMA trailer tests are too little, too late.   In a posting on “Toxic Trailers”, Becky Gillette of the Mississippi Sierra Club says that at this point in time more tests are not the answer.  “Instead of another round of testing, FEMA needs to immediately purchase some formaldehyde free emergency housing,” Gillette wrote.  “That type of housing is available. Since the problem has already been well established, why is FEMA being so slow to act to replenish the stock of housing needed for emergencies?”

Gillette’s question is one many victims of FEMA’s toxic trailers would like to have answered.

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