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Test trailers for chemical, FEMA told

Formaldehyde levels concern lawmakers

May 19, 2007 | Times-Picayune

Louisiana lawmakers are once again calling on FEMA to look into complaints of formaldehyde contamination in travel trailers, 86,000 of which remain in use along the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced people from their homes in 2005.

Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., this week both urged FEMA to conduct broader testing than the 69 trailers it examined in Baton Rouge late last year and raised questions about the agency's response to complaints.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, raised similar concerns in a letter to FEMA in August. The new round of inquiries was prompted by a "CBS Evening News" report last week about high formaldehyde levels in trailers in Mississippi.

In tests in September, FEMA found dangerous levels of formaldehyde in some of the newly manufactured trailers, but after proper ventilation the agency said the air in the vehicles was safe. This week, FEMA Director David Paulison said he hasn't seen evidence that formaldehyde was causing health problems in trailer residents.

Formaldehyde is frequently found in building materials. Exposure to its gas can cause respiratory problems, asthma attacks and sinus infections, and the Environmental Protection Agency said prolonged exposure might cause cancer.

Landrieu, chairwoman of a subcommittee overseeing FEMA, asked the agency in a letter Friday to test more trailers. She called it "unacceptable" for FEMA to house hurricane victims "in hazardous units that expose (them) to toxic substances."

Jindal went a step further, asking the House and Senate Homeland Security committees to hold public hearings. He said he found it "astonishing" that FEMA had suggested that trailer residents open windows and run the air-conditioning to lessen the contamination.

"With the sweltering heat and humidity in the Gulf Coast, this is hardly acceptable advice to residents," he wrote in a letter to House leaders.

FEMA officials said they began receiving complaints of formaldehyde in trailers in early 2006 in Mississippi and moved quickly to address them. The agency distributed pamphlets and knocked on residents' doors urging them to ventilate the trailers. In May 2006, FEMA said it delivered similar advisories in Louisiana after complaints cropped up.

The Louisiana pamphlet urged residents to watch for symptoms "similar to that of the common cold or flu" and said children and elderly people, or those with respiratory problems and allergies, were especially susceptible. It urged occupants to keep the humidity and temperature in trailers low and avoid smoking inside.

The pamphlet omitted any mention of cancer. Yet a FEMA advisory for its own workers, first reported by CBS, warned that cancer was a "potential injury" for those installing trailers.

FEMA's tests last year of 69 new, unventilated trailers found the level of formaldehyde at 1.2 parts per million, 12 times the amount EPA says can cause vision and respiratory problems. The levels dropped to 0.3 parts per million after four days of ventilation, according to FEMA, still three times the EPA's baseline.

A FEMA official said the agency doesn't use the EPA's 0.1 parts per million standard, but rather a 0.3 parts per million level employed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its manufactured homes.

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