FEMA Trailers are Toxic, CDC Says Residents Must be MovedFeb 14, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers are indeed toxic, and Gulf Coast hurricane victims still living in the formaldehyde-filled FEMA trailers should be moved out of the structures as soon as possible, federal health officials said yesterday. The urgent plea came from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) after tests it conducted revealed that residents of the toxic FEMA trailers were being exposed to at least five times the level of formaldehyde found in typical homes. In the worst FEMA trailers, formaldehyde levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels, raising fears that residents could contract respiratory problems.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of those made homeless moved into FEMA trailers, and thousands of people continue to live in the temporary housing. 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 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”.
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.
Last year, FEMA finally decided to have the CDC conduct test of the trailers, but the tests were delayed for two months. FEMA only started the trailer testing in December, after a judge set a deadline by which the agency was required to have a plan in place to test the trailers.
In 2006, while FEMA was dragging its feet on testing the toxic trailers, the Sierra Club was conducting its own tests on 600 FEMA trailers. The Sierra Club found that 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 (parts per million), 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.
Now the CDC has confirmed that the FEMA trailers pose a serious danger to residents still living in them. According to the Associated Press, the CDC trailer tests revealed average formaldehyde levels of 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 ppb.
Now the CDC is telling FEMA that moving residents from the toxic trailers should be done as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions. Indoor air temperature was a significant factor in raising formaldehyde levels, so the CDC is urging the agency to move people out of the toxic FEMA trailers before summer.