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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- For nearly a year now, the ubiquitous FEMA trailer has sheltered tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. But there is growing concern that even as it staved off the elements, it was exposing its inhabitants to a toxic gas that could pose both immediate and long-term health risks.

The gas is formaldehyde, the airborne form of a chemical used in a wide variety of products, including composite wood and plywood panels in the thousands of travel trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased after Katrina to house hurricane victims. It also 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.

Air quality tests of 44 FEMA trailers conducted by the Sierra Club since April have found formaldehyde concentrations as high as 0.34 parts per million – a level nearly equal to what a professional embalmer would be exposed to on the job, according to one study of the chemical’s workplace effects.

And all but four of the trailers have tested higher than the 0.1 parts per million that the EPA considers to be an “elevated level” capable of causing watery eyes, burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, and respiratory distress in some people.

Becky Gillette, co-chair of the Mississippi chapter of the environmental group, said that representatives also have heard from numerous trailer inhabitants who say they began experiencing health problems ranging from headaches and runny noses to chronic respiratory problems and nosebleeds as soon as they moved in.

As a result of its testing and such accounts, the Sierra Club is pushing for a congressional investigation of the potential health hazards posed by the trailers.

“It’s simply wrong that the government would spend billions of dollars to poison people in these toxic tin cans,” Gillette said.

Pediatrician saw unusual illnesses

Dr. Scott Needle, a pediatrician in Bay St. Louis, said he noticed some unusual and persistent health problems among his patients living in the trailers well before the possible link to formaldehyde exposure surfaced.

“I was seeing kids coming in with respiratory complaints – colds and sinus infections – and they were getting them over and over again,” he said. “…Almost invariably, these families were staying in the FEMA trailers.”

A class-action lawsuit also has been filed in Louisiana, naming the federal government and trailer manufacturers as defendants and alleging that “the temporary housing is unsafe and presents a clear and present danger to the health and well-being of plaintiffs and their families.”

Read previous story: The lowdown on a Katrina icon

Despite the Sierra Club tests – and air quality testing by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in November that detected formaldehyde levels at FEMA trailer holding stations on the Gulf Coast as high as 5.0 parts per million, or 50 times the EPA’s “elevated” level – FEMA says the trailers are safe and there is no need for it to conduct its own air-quality testing.

“FEMA stands confident in using travel trailers for emergency sheltering,” said agency spokesman Aaron Walker. “… To put it in perspective, we have almost 115,000 trailers out right now, and FEMA has received just over 20 complaints total.”

Better ventilation recommended

Walker said those experiencing any adverse reactions to the trailer environment can likely resolve the issue by increasing ventilation.

“We encourage families living in the trailers, if they’re worried, to take steps to air out their trailers,” he said. “… If a family is uncomfortable with their trailer, they’re welcome to call our trailer hot line (and) we can come out and test their trailer and have a look at it.”

Trailer manufacturers contacted by MSNBC.com declined to comment on the issue because of the pending litigation and directed inquiries to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom echoed Walker in saying that the gas in the trailers poses no health threat.

“The industry uses low-emitting materials, so formaldehyde has not been an issue for 15 or 20 years at least,” he said.

Broom acknowledged that the high heat and humidity in the Gulf Coast could increase the rate of formaldehyde “outgassing” from wood products trailers, but added that ventilation should quickly take care of any problem.

“You can get it to dissipate very easily if you just ventilate it,” he said. “People may just need to be shown how to open the windows.”

Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist from Vancouver, Wash., who has studied the formaldehyde issue, agrees that the high heat and humidity in the hurricane-ravaged zone exacerbate the problem. But she believes that the higher-than-usual readings in the FEMA trailers could be the result of the rush to manufacture the trailers in the wake of Katrina.

“Typically with these plywood and particleboard materials … before assembly they’re put in ovens that heat them to 130 degrees,” she said. “This sets and bakes off the formaldehyde in the glues and resins. ... I’m not sure that happened in this case because the trailers were made so fast.”

The RVIA’s Broom disputes that notion, saying such “baking” is performed by the manufacturer to reduce the formaldehyde leakage.

“That’s not something the RV industry would do,” he said of the process. “They would be buying certified low- emission materials.”

A patchwork of standards

Any effort to determine whether the formaldehyde levels present in the trailers pose a health threat is exacerbated by the patchwork of standards in place to regulate exposure to the chemical – none of which apply to travel trailers or recreational vehicles.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development limits the use of formaldehyde-emitting products in manufactured homes -- setting a standard of 0.2 parts per million for plywood and 0.3 parts per million for particleboard materials. But the agency does not regulate travel trailers or motor homes, probably because it was never anticipated that people would spend long periods of time living in them, said the Sierra Club’s Gillette.

The lack of an exposure standard reflects a bigger issue, said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer American Lung Association.

“The real problem is we haven’t done for indoor pollution what we’ve done four outdoor pollution and set national standards,” he said. “There are no indoor air quality air standards and I really think Congress should empower the EPA and NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) to set standards.”

Nor is there agreement on the long-term health risks from exposure to formaldehyde.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified it as “carcinogenic to humans” in June 2004 after reviewing 40 human studies, including a National Cancer Institute study linking exposure to an elevated risk of rare nasopharyngeal cancer.

California cracking down

The California Air Resources Board has identified formaldehyde as a “toxic air contaminant” after state experts concluded that, based on current research, there is “no safe exposure threshold … to preclude cancer.” The agency is currently developing regulations aimed at sharply reducing the amount of formaldehyde products used in the state by 2010.

But no U.S. health or environmental agencies have followed the IARC in declaring the chemical to be a human carcinogen, saying more research is necessary. And the industry groups have sponsored research that they say shows the potential risk associated with exposure has been overblown.

“All of the available and still-emerging human health research data is demonstrating that if formaldehyde exposure is kept below levels that produce chronic irritation and overt target tissue damage, the risk of cancer is essentially zero,” according to the Formaldehyde Council, an industry group.

The debate is far from academic for Katrina survivors who are nearing their one-year anniversary living in the trailers.

DeVany, the industrial hygienist, said that children and the elderly are most at risk, the former because they have higher respiration rates than adults and the latter because they are likely to be exposed to the fumes more than those who work and only return to their trailers at night.

“A year from now, the formaldehyde will be gone, but the permanent and lasting effects from these exposures will not,” she said.

Fumes forced couple to flee

Sounding a similar warning, though one born from personal experience, are Paul and Melody Stewart of Bay St. Louis, who say formaldehyde forced them out of their FEMA trailer and into their truck.

The couple said that even though they had a friend air out the Cavalier trailer and run the heater before they arrived, the smell when they walked in was overpowering. And Melody said she had a nosebleed the first night they stayed in it.

“(The smell) was really bad, but we went and ahead and went to bed,” she said. “Within hours, I woke up to the smell – it was that strong – and I was gasping for fresh air. I ran to the window.”

The couple continued to ventilate the trailer and also tried removing composite wood panels from beneath the bed and table bench and replacing them with solid wood, but nothing seemed to help.

Finally, when their pet cockatiel took ill, they decided they had to do something.

“We got up one morning and the cockatiel was lethargic, wouldn’t move, was losing its balance,” said Paul, a police officer in neighboring Waveland. “… (Later), the vet told us unequivocally, ‘Look, you either get the bird out of that environment or he’s going to die.’”

The Stewarts complained to FEMA and received two replacement trailers – the first of which also smelled of formaldehyde and a second that had swathes of mold and a stove top that looked like it had been “used at a Waffle House,” Paul said.

Fed up, they called FEMA and told the agency to come take the trailer away, then spent five days living in their truck before using their last $50,000 in savings to buy a “fifth-wheel” trailer devoid of any formaldehyde odor.

“We took what resources we had left, and what we really should have used to rebuild our house, and went out and bought our own camper,” Paul said.

Since then, the Stewarts have granted numerous media interviews, intent on spreading word of the possible hazards.

“We’re here because there are so many people at risk (and) they’re in the shadows,” Melody said. “You’ve got Christians, hard-working people that have lost their jobs and retired people who have paid their dues to society, and we’re putting them at risk by letting them stay in these campers.”

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So just what does the Sierra Club suggest would have been a more acceptable answer to the problem of the epidemic of homelessness that occurred in the wake of Katrina?? To have the gov't build everyone a new home in the immediate aftermath, using formaldehyde-free building materials?? To attack the short-term solution that was utilized without offering an idea for a better solution that is logistically feasible, isn't constructive or helpful. Anyone can criticize! In the days and weeks after the storm, the majority of people living in FEMA trailers now were living either a)outdoors in tents, b)in the remains of their damaged homes, c)in their vehicles, or d)in hotel rooms or with family members, out of state. I recognize that the FEMA trailers are not an ideal answer to the problem, but would the people living in them now be any less at health risk if they had been living outdoors in tents in the elements, or in their water-damaged homes contaminated with mold and bacteria? Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, yes, but so are many, many substances we come into contact with everyday in the course of our lives. Gasoline fumes, sheetrock dust, paint, glue, asphalt, fiberglass insulation, cigarette smoke, UV sunlight, silicone, dozens if not hundreds of others...you mitigate your cancer risk by minimizing your exposure to these substances; short-term, low-level exposure is considered by most researchers to be low risk, with the risk increasing as the exposure is prolonged. In the absence of any other alternatives I think the FEMA trailers are a necessary and hopefully short-term evil. The same materials being used in the construction of FEMA trailers are being used in the construction of mobile homes and travel trailers all over the country. So, if the people living in the FEMA trailers are at risk, doesn't that mean by extension that anyone living in a mobile home or spending any extended length of time in a travel trailer is at an equal risk? Why doesn't the Sierra Club take this attack from sea to shining sea to create a nationwide panic, instead of trying to instigate merely a local one?

1. People stay a long time in trailers. I think this is a potentially serious issue because people stay a long time in FEMA trailers. There are some FEMA trailers in Florida that are now in their fourth year. I think it's time to look into this question of formaldehyde. In fact I'd suggest that the Sierra Club or a health agency monitor the older trailers.

2. Air out your trailer? In the summer in Mississippi/Louisiana? These trailers are not designed like your grandmother's house with big screened windows and a front porch. They have small windows and air conditioning. I'd like to see Michael Chertoff, FEMA's boss as head of Homeland Security, move his own family from their comfortable digs into a FEMA trailer in Louisiana, then turn off the A/C and "air it out" in July.

As a former OSHA compliance officer and practicing Industrial Hygienist, I have to sympathize with the residents of those small trailers. Formaldehyde *has* been reduced in manufactured housing, but it can show up in specific units for a variety of reasons. Given that this chemical is a recognized carcinogen (in the civilized world, anyway), FEMA's response to complaints are unacceptable. Until testing is done, no one knows what the level might be. It might be below a regulatory threshold, or it might be above it. Until the test is performed, no one knows. More to the point, this problem can be addressed and solved quickly. There are a number of companies that manufacture formaldehyde detectors, some electronic, others more low-tech (but still accurate at +/- 25% or less). One such company is SKC. FEMA should then take a representative sample of trailers and test for formaldehyde. If the formaldehyde concentration exceeds their criteria level, then there are procedures that can be followed to reduce the exposure to the residents. The procedure is relatively inexpensive, it can be done quickly and it will leave FEMA with a positive rather than negative legacy regarding this issue. If FEMA can keep the high-dollar consultants from draining their budget, this one will be easy.

I find this story hard to believe. I have camped for years in a 28 ft. camper/trailer. I spend my summers at a campground with 200+ campers......and many large, new campers come in all the time. People stay in them for weeks at a time, and NOT ONCE have I ever heard of anyone becoming sick from staying in their camper.

We also travel with a camper and have never heard anyone complain of this problem in all the campgrounds in the various states we have visited.

This sounds like an excuse for people to sue.....and bilk more money from the taypayers. If they don't like the FEMA camper, then why don't they just buy a tent at their OWN expense.

No doubt these particular Katrina victims will demand to rebuild their house in the same location as their old house......so when the next hurricane comes and knocks it down, we, the taxpayers can dole out MORE money to have it rebuilt. These same residents will then demand a formaldehyde free, 'taxpayer paid for' Fema camper/trailer to stay in, while the taxpayers help rebuild their home!!!

The Sierra Club can get bent. Anything for them to get their name in print or in a sound bite. Where is their alternative solution? How many people have they "rescued" from this peril?


After all is said and done it comes down to 1 thing. It must be George Bushes fault.

Sounds as if Mike has an invested interest in travel trailers. Perhaps if he were made to live in one of the tin cans he would change his opinion. Of course if he is the die hard Republican then it would make little difference. Everything he touches smells bad.

As for FEMA testing the trailers for formaldehyde, of course they will refuse to do so. As long as they can deny the problem they will not have to admit to another blunder associated with Katrina. If we look deep enough we will probably find the Formaldehyde Council is 'high' on giving to Republican campaigns and this is merely their reward for doing so. Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, with green power {not to be confused with Sierra green}.

Right on Mike! To critcize with out a viable solution is something I can't stand. The Sierra Club has always done that.

I think we all do the best we can when it comes to an emergency like Katrina - I don't believe the trailers were ment to be a long term solution. Health issues are a concern for sure and need to be addressed even for a short term lodging - unfortunately "Katrina type Hurricanes" will continue.

yeah formaldehyde was there....guess what that meant......the trailor was new!!!!!....and people had a roof over their heads

Stories like this one are sensational enough, however when incorrect terms like "fumes" are used to describe a gas (which was properly used earlier in the article)it creates a credibility gap. A fume is solid particle and is created from the condensation of vaporized metal (Example: welding fumes).

Since when are " obnoxious fumes" considered a "toxic gas" .. I suppose that your body sweat can be considered a "toxic gas" as "BO fumes" stink too. If you get close enough, long enough, you'll gag and get nauseated as well ! I bet the Sierra Club waited until the temperature was 99 degrees and the humidity was 99% and the trailer had all the windows closed for 24 hours. The solution is not complaining about the building material or the fumes but to get some ventilation working properly in the FEMA trailer. The formaldehyde fumes will eventually evaporate as the wood in the trailer dries out. The humidity on the coast just exacerbates the problem ! Try getting a dehumidifier or an air conditioner to rectify the humidity problem. By the way ..if you take the same FEMA trailer and put it in Michigan; then open the windows and get the air circulating, the obnoxious fumes dissipate. Oh and another by the way: "for all the hundreds of thousands of RV's on the roads, don't forget to have the Sierra Club test your RV and then start a class action suite against the RV manufactures for trying to kill you with poison gas".

It's unfortunate people with the new housing are getting sick. When I built my new home, I experienced some of the same problems for a little while. I was told the fumes from the new lumber, carpet, and other house hold features may irratate my sinus until the fumes escaped. It worked, so keep airing those trailers out!

As the saying goes No good deed goes unpunished". The more help offered to the DP's along the Gulf coast the louder they have complained. The Stewarts, for example received not one but three trailers, the last of which they obviously coud not possibly have lived in because it "looked like (the stove) it had been used at a waffle house". It is disgusting that so few of those affected have expressed gratitude for the contributions of those from all over the country, but can't wait to sign up for the clas-action suits engineered by greedy lawyers. It will be the proverbial "cold day in hell" before I again contribute to the relief of those who will not take responsibility for their own welfare. Note that the Stewarts had $50,000 available for that use but were unwilling to do so!

Give me a break. Are you implying that evacuees should be thankful for second-rate shelter? We ALL pay taxes and we ALL participate in the system -- and if I were ever face with such a calamity, I would expect much more COMPETENCE from FEMA and my local government services. The FEMA-supplied shelters were overpriced, delivered late, and, as it turns out, not up to open-market standards. This incompetence will run unchecked until someone stands up and speaks out. Bless the Sierra Club for taking a stand and let's hope real change happens before the next calamity. (Reminder: Bush's 2004 campaign slogan was "It's YOUR money.")

Can you trust the complaints of individuals who spent their last $50,000 to buy a travel trailer instead of fixing their home? It also seems as though these folks are a little to picky. Thier story is a good example of what is fundamentally wrong with many Americans; we are spoiled rotten. My extensive plan would take care of these people and immigration. Let these ungrateful Americans go to Mexico and live in the shantys and huts and allow these grateful immigrants to come here. Two problems solved!

This situation is no surprise; once again, the US gov't is a shining example to the rest of the world. My question to Melody Stewart is: should the non-Christian, disabled (non-working) folks not be afforded safe places to live?

I think it would have been cheaper to have built homes and put these people in good homes. Instead we will have lawsuits and people dying and other people getting rich off of the government.

Do the Stewarts not realize the fifth wheel they bought is made of the same materials the fema trailers are made of. I think the people should be giving a choice of living in a fema trailer or making there own living arrangements.

My parents live in a FEMA trailer in Folsom, LA and my mom has just started feeling sick. She has Fibromyalsia already and we thought it was a flare up, but it just didn't add up. The mold and pollen count wasn't high enough to be giving her a reaction as bad as she is having. Maybe it's the trailer?? Ya know, it wouldn't surprise me in the least that the US government would take the cheap way out and decide that it's better for a few casualties then to actually take care of the people. But what else is new? Don't they already have a name for it? Calculated casualties?? We just aren't used to them using the term for civilians.

The US government shouldn’t be in the housing business at all. Those unfortunate folks should have to solve there own problems of housing. Why our government supplies housing and money to victims has me baffled. The situation is sad, the folks affected are good tax paying citizens for the most part, but the government should only provide general aid and emergency supplies to the communities. Our taxes are being misspent on trailers and clothing. The tragedy is compounded by folks like the SIERRA CLUB coming in and negatively and adversely demanding the government now do something more than we already are. There isn’t any positive gain in attacking the hand that feeds, but the view from the SIERRA CLUB is expose the government as the real culprit, instead of having any helpful insight to improve the lot of those affected by Katrina. No mention of the incredibly high amounts of mold and mildew in all the trash, ruined furniture and wet home walls that would affect the folks living in these destroyed communities. In the mornings on a humid day (which are mostly all spring, summer, and early fall) the smell knocks you over as it’s everywhere in the air. Many better uses of the SIERRA CLUBS time and energy come to mind.

Mike is exactly correct formaldehyde is used in products in hotels, appartment, as well as homes. The answer to reduce these toxic fumes is ventilation. There seems to be a lot of organizations in the gulf coast area wanting to blame the Federal Government for their woes but no one wants to take responsibility for themselves correct their problems. Instead of pumping a bunch of money into the region the government should put the residents to work cleaning up their properties.


All I can say is why doesn't the Sierra Club try to be of good to all of us. Be an organization that doen't dwell on political issues and become an organization to benefit mankind.

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