The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Feb. 14, 2008, released preliminary results from months of testing, indicating that formaldehyde levels in travel trailers and mobile homes used to house Hurricane Katrina victims is higher than normal levels.
According to information released by FEMA on its web site (www.fema.gov), the CDC’s preliminary evaluation was based on a scientifically established random sample of 519 travel trailers and mobile homes, which were tested between Dec. 21, 2007 and Jan. 23, 2008. CDC and FEMA contracted with Bureau Veritas North America for the tests, which included 358 travel trailers, 82 park models and 79 mobile homes.
Results indicated average levels of formaldehyde in all units of about 77 parts per billion (ppb). These levels are higher than expected in indoor air, where levels are commonly in the range of 10-20 ppb, the report states. Levels measured in the FEMA-placed trailers ranged from 3 ppb to 590 ppb. The CDC says long-term exposure to levels in this range can be linked to an increased risk of cancer, and as levels rise above this range, there can also be a risk of respiratory illness. The highest concentrations were in travel trailers, which are smaller and more poorly ventilated, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.
Although FEMA had already been working to relocate residents in the temporary travel trailer and mobile home housing, the agency announced it is stepping up the pace of these efforts in the face of these findings. Priority is being given to people expressing a health concern, and those most susceptible to health risk, such as the elderly, households with young children and those with respiratory challenges, FEMA says.
FEMA originally provided 143,752 mobile homes and travel trailers to individuals and families throughout the Gulf Coast region affected by Katrina. Currently, 38,297 households remain in emergency, temporary housing units. Of that number, 30,860 (80.58%) are located on private sites, usually adjacent to the residents’ former home under repair or construction, and 7,437 are in group, commercial or industrial sites, which FEMA was already in the process of consolidating and phasing out.
According to its web site, FEMA previously announced a plan to close all group sites and relocate residents by June 1 of this year and will continue this activity as part of its ongoing efforts. During the week of Feb. 6, 2008, 983 households moved out of temporary housing and FEMA continues to move between 800 and 1,000 households out, on average, per week.
The CDC recommends that families in these mobile homes and travel trailers relocate with urgency, particularly as the weather begins to warm up, as higher temperatures can cause formaldehyde levels to rise. “We think it’s wise for people to be relocated before the hot weather arrives in summer,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding.
FEMA has been criticized by congressional investigators, who last month accused FEMA of suppressing and manipulating scientific research to downplay the danger – which FEMA denies – according to a report on TheState.com, “South Carolina’s Home Page,” citing Michael Kunzelman of The Associated Press. The story on TheState.com also reported that FEMA trailer occupants began reporting headaches, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing as early as 2006.
The Sierra Club began warning about formaldehyde levels in travel trailers by early 2006, after conducting its own air-quality tests. FEMA officials initially dismissed the environmental group’s testing, saying the trailers conformed to industry standards. The CDC testing was carried out after lawyers for a group of hurricane victims asked a federal judge to order FEMA to test for hazardous fumes.
Formaldehyde is used in a wide variety of products, including composite wood and plywood panels used to manufacture the thousands of travel trailers and mobile homes purchased by FEMA after the storms. There is no federal safety standard for formaldehyde fumes in homes or travel trailers, though the Department of Housing and Urban Development regulates the presence of the chemical in the manufacture of mobile homes. In addition to causing respiratory ailments, formaldehyde is considered a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Beyond the implications for Hurricane Katrina disaster victims, the CDC study may also have implications for the safety of residents of mobile homes and travel trailers nationwide, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as reported by The Associated Press.
The CDC’s Dr. Gerberding also acknowledged that information gleaned from the study could have implications for trailers and mobile homes used throughout the United States that have nothing to do with disasters, according to Leslie Williams, a reporter from The New Orleans Times-Picayune. “We’ll be able to say a lot more as we do more science,” he quotes Gerberding as saying.
However, MSNBC.com reports that at the news conference, Gerberding cautioned that mobile home residents should not conclude that their homes present a possible health risk based on the test results on the FEMA units. “We need to be very clear that the sample … was just homes that FEMA is using, not the entire universe of mobile homes,” she said. “… We’ve learned something about mobile homes and we need to bring some experts together to look at this.”
Gerberding also said the testing had not identified specific types or brands of trailers or mobile homes that had higher levels of formaldehyde.
But in the same report, Friday, Feb. 15, 2008, MSNBC.com reported Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who has been investigating the formaldehyde problem, indicated for the first time on Thursday that his panel has developed “specific evidence” that travel trailers and mobile homes supplied by three manufacturers contained high levels of the toxic gas.
Waxman’s office released letters written to officials of Pilgrim International and Coachman Industries, both of Middlebury, Ind., and Gulf Stream Coach of Nappanee, Ind., requesting documents and communications with FEMA and subcontractors related to the presence of formaldehyde in the units.
Jeff Tryka, a spokesman for Coachmen Industries, said the company had no comment on the letter. Representatives of Pilgrim International and Gulf Stream Coach did not immediately return calls from msnbc.com seeking comment.