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Toxic Trailers

May 16, 2007 | CNN

S. O'BRIEN: First it was a struggle just to get a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina. Well now there are 100,000 FEMA trailers out there and a new problem. Those trailers that were supposed to be helping people rebuild their lives might just be making them sick.

PAUL STEWART, LIVED IN FEMA TRAILER: Moving home's a big deal.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Paul and Melody Stewart's home became just another headache when they were forced to abandon their trailer because they say the fumes were overwhelming.

MELODY STEWART, LIVED IN FEMA TRAILER: You would wake up. You could feel like a weight on your chest. I mean, you could feel that you couldn't breathe.

PAUL STEWART: We went on the Internet and I started looking up health issues, campers, so forth and came across a lot of threads and a lot of, you know, talk about formaldehyde inside.

S. O'BRIEN: Paul reported his suspicions to a FEMA maintenance subcontractor twice. He says he got no response. So he did his own test on the air in his camper and he was shocked by what he found. A formaldehyde concentration of 0.22 parts per million in the air. That's more than twice the concentration several federal agencies say is unsafe. The EPA saying anything over 0.1 parts per million can harm the respiratory system and may even cause cancer.

MELODY STEWART: I don't know how we were going to do it, but we knew we had to get out.

S. O'BRIEN: FEMA believes the Stewart's problem is an isolated case in an otherwise successful half a billion dollar trailer program that gave 100,000 families a place to live in record time.

DAVID PASSEY, FEMA SPOKESMAN: This is absolutely the largest disaster the United States has ever faced. With that has come the largest emergency housing mission and I this is it is safe to assume that there will be a number of families who will be staying in these travel trailers longer than in previous disasters.

S. O'BRIEN: Displaced residents are living in trailers made for camping. They're often built with particle board, with contains formaldehyde, for the bedding and the seats and the counters. CNN conducted air tests on two other FEMA trailers. Four children live in this one which tested 80 percent higher than federal recommendations. This one tested 50 percent higher. We tagged along with the Stewarts and some local environmentalists as they testing 31 FEMA trailers. Twenty-nine tested above the federal standard. FEMA says it hands out fliers to warn people to ventilate their new trailers. No one we spoke to said they'd gotten a flier.

SUSAN SAUNDERS, LIVES IN FEMA TRAILER: Oh, my eyes just ran a lot more and I had that hacking like everybody's got around here. Just that hacking cough.

S. O'BRIEN: At this FEMA trailer camp, at least a dozen people told us they have complained to FEMA about the irritating fumes. Darlene Bullock's trailer tested 30 percent above the federal standard.

DARLENE BULLOCK, LIVES IN FEMA TRAILER: They had to take the bed and mattress because of the plywood.

S. O'BRIEN: The Cavalier trailers are manufactured by Gulf Stream. The company says they received no complaints of illnesses and that they use "low formaldehyde emission building materials." Gulf Stream also says that "especially under closed and/or stored conditions formaldehyde from a variety of common building products may be present," but that levels will "dissipate when the space is ventilated." Dick Lemen was the nation's assistant surgeon general under two administrations.

DICK LEMEN, AIR QUALITY EXPERT: General knowledge was adequately available about the issues concerning formaldehyde, their irritant effects and should have been addressed in buying the trailers.

S. O'BRIEN: FEMA says they've used these vary trailers to house thousands of people after disasters for years.

PASSEY: I would question whether they are unsafe or whether this is for a few people a nuisance. We've not found formaldehyde to be an issue in the past, but we remain concerned.

S. O'BRIEN: FEMA offered Paul and Melody Stewart a new trailer after he complained. The Stewarts claim the replacement was infested with bugs. They took out a second mortgage on the nonexistent home and have bought their own trailer.

MELODY STEWART: If you haven't gotten one of these campers yet, the ones that FEMA gave us, thank God.

S. O'BRIEN: That was a look at how the situation is there for those who are dealing with that issue. You know, I think it's kind of an interesting problem when you think about it because on one hand they're so grateful for having any kind of, you know, housing at all. Many of these people are still living in sort of makeshift ways. But they're concerned about their health on a lot of fronts.


M. O'BRIEN: Well given all that has happened to them. It's like being shot and complaining about lead poisoning. I mean you know what I mean, there's so many other issues that they've had to contend with, you know?

S. O'BRIEN: Or you could say being shot and having lead poisoning, too, and so you're compromised even more every second.

SERWER: I mean if these places are toxic, they're toxic, right? I mean if they're dangerous to live in, that's a problem.

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