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Some FEMA Trailers More Toxic Than Others. CDC Calls for More Tests.

Mar 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Some of the toxic trailers used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to house Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims are apparently more dangerous that others.  According to recent tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), certain brands and sizes of trailers release more formaldehyde than others and officials say they want to check a wider selection.  According to recent report issued by the CDC, the tests on the toxic FEMA did not find a pattern to definitively state products of any one manufacturer were more dangerous than another; but the CDC has called for additional investigation. FEMA has been criticized for failing to test the toxic trailers for dangerous levels of formaldehyde earlier, when it first received reports that Gulf Coast hurricane victims were suffering health problems from the fumes emitted by the FEMA trailers.

Last month the CDC reported its tests of 519 Toxic FEMA Trailers provided to Katrina victims showed potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.  "These data obviously bring to your mind and other people's minds that perhaps there needs to be other sampling done," said CDC researcher, Dr. Michael McGeehin.

"There are different brands that are statistically significantly higher than other brands," said Dr. McGeehin, who works with the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.  The larger, park model trailers, which are up to 400 square feet in size, have the lowest formaldehyde levels while the smallest mobile homes tend to have the highest, the report shows.  Formaldehyde is a chemical used in the manufacture of building materials that can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.  In high levels, exposure may cause cancer.

A random sampling of trailers showed examples of every type and brand had very high and very low levels of formaldehyde.  People have been living in the Toxic FEMA Trailers since the hurricanes hit late summer 2005.  McGeehin said the CDC would speak with the manufacturers, Departments of Education and Housing, Urban Development, and other agencies.

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.  The average formaldehyde level was 81 ppb among travel trailers, 59 ppb among mobile homes, and 40 ppb among park models, the CDC found, with some levels above 500 ppb.  "Travel trailers from Gulfstream, Keystone, and Pilgrim were not significantly different from each other, but each showed statistically significantly higher levels of formaldehyde than the other travel-trailer strata combined," the report reads.  "All other things being equal, FEMA may want to use these data as they are moving people out," McGeehin said.

Mike Lapinski, FEMA federal coordinating officer, said the agency would use the data to move people out of the Toxic Trailers quicker; 35,000 trailers are still occupied in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and Louisiana.  "What the CDC report does is it is one more tool that we can use to support either getting additional authority or additional capabilities... to better transition people to long-term solutions," Lapinski said, such as FEMA or states receiving authority to spend more to rent houses or apartments.  Lapinski said FEMA was not planning to change its priorities. "The priority is still with kids," he said.  People who reported health problems that could be related to the trailers also move to the front of the line, he said.

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