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Toxic FEMA Trailers are Being Sold As Scrap

Nov 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Toxic trailers used to house Hurricane Katrina victims are being sold as scrap by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  At least one lawmaker has already expressed concern that the trailers, which are likely contaminated with formaldehyde, could end up as housing once again, even though FEMA has designated them as scrap.

In 2005, thousands of people in Mississippi and Louisiana were given FEMA trailers as temporary housing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But by 2006 FEMA was getting reports from field workers along the Gulf Coast that residents of FEMA trailers where getting sick from the air in the toxic trailers. The first suspect was formaldehyde, which is used in the manufacture of the trailers. Despite the reports, 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”.

Late last year, FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finally conducted air quality tests of 519 trailers. The CDC tests confirmed that the FEMA trailers posed a serious danger to residents still living in them. The average formaldehyde levels found in the toxic trailers measured 77ppb (parts per billions), significantly higher than the 10 to 17 ppb concentration seen in newer homes. When it announced its findings, the CDC urged FEMA to move residents from the toxic trailers as quickly as possible, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions.

According to the FEMA website, the agency has identified 10,000 travel trailers that could be designated as scrap and sold under federal law.  FEMA said it will work with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to make excess inventory available through the GSA disposal process.  The units will be posted on for interested individuals to purchase. The trailers are shown intact on the GSA website.

In a letter sent to FEMA on Thursday, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss wrote that he was "deeply concerned about the well-being of those individuals who may unwittingly come to reside in these potentially contaminated trailers."

According to the FEMA website, formaldehyde was used in the manufacture of the travel trailers and may still be present in the units. If the trailers have been tested for the presence of formaldehyde,  FEMA said it will provide the results of the test.   Because of formaldehyde, FEMA it strongly recommends that the travel trailers not be used for occupancy.  However,  the FEMA website does state that the travel trailers could be used for office space, command posts, storage, etc.

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.

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