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Particleboard Main Source of Formaldehyde Fumes in Toxic FEMA Trailers

Jul 3, 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 the Toxic FEMA Trailers are linked to a public health catastrophe involving 300,000 people, many children, who were exposed to high formaldehyde levels exceeding the U.S. 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.

While the CDC found that although levels of formaldehyde varied from unit to unit of a particular brand, nearly all brands of Toxic FEMA Trailers tested had units with high formaldehyde levels.  The CDC "supported the need to move quickly," and get people out of FEMA housing before summer, as heat can increase formaldehyde fumes.  In a previous CDC study, scientists tested air quality inside hundreds of Toxic FEMA Trailers and mobile homes occupied by Katrina victim and detected potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde in many units.  Pilgrim International, Inc.; Gulf Stream Coach, Inc.; Thor Industries, Inc.; and Coachmen Industries, Inc. were the trailers reviewed in the CDC study.

Now, particleboard appears to be one of the main sources of potentially harmful fumes in the government-issued Toxic FEMA Trailers.  The report issued by the CDC in Atlanta recommends using different building materials to produce emergency housing for FEMA.  The CDC also said that better ventilation in the units could make them safer.  Scientists speculate that formaldehyde levels in the Toxic FEMA Trailers were higher than in mobile homes because they contain more composite wood products, such as particleboard, in a smaller space, and with poorer ventilation.  The latest tests—conducted to determine which components were responsible for emitting formaldehyde fumes—were performed by California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories.

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.

Michael McGeehin, director of the CDC's division of environmental health hazards, said the report's findings only apply to FEMA trailers that sheltered Gulf Coast storm victims.  "They do not apply to other trailers in use elsewhere in the country," he said.  Although the CDC maintains that formaldehyde emitted by each trailer part didn't exceed limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development, McGeehin said those HUD standards were meant for larger mobile homes.

Becky Gillette, formaldehyde campaign director for the Sierra Club, said the test results highlight the "terrible inadequacies" of the HUD standards, which date back to 1984.


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