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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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This is absoutely terrible. The people in the Gulf Coast area already have enough to think about, react to, plan for, and pray about.....knowing that the Federal Government put our citizens in such a risky "home". Also, I believe the Sierra Club should go ahead & bring this to the national light. The Sierra Club is a wonderful group & I know they will find the best avenue to attack this. They have in our area, visit www.noolf.com and see how they have helped us fight the Department of Defense!

FEMA should at least distibute info to the people using these trailers that a danger exists, and to ventilate their trailers. It has to better than being outside in the fetid mud.

Whoa you spent $50,000 on a camper?????????? I am tring real hard to be understanding - But I too want to build a house (having trouble coming up with the $50,000) - but I would buy a $20.00 tent and a coleman stove and start working on my house. But thats just me. Yes I know I am not on the ground there. I saw my brothers house get "written off" for about a foot of the drywall being ruined" Plus I saw various agencies give him $10,000 as a gift not a loan. I cleaned up houses in GA when I was in the USMC and yeah it sucked, people lost everything they had. As a collective whole, they didn't whine for everything. They got a scoop shovel, some wheel barrows and got rid of the mold (and the memories) and put their lives back together. The same goes for cleaning up after hurricanes in North Carolina while stationed there. My wife's Grandma's house got flooded out, but I never saw no FEMA Trailer pull up. Granted she lives in a small town in WV not a big tourist trap like the Gulf Coast but she paid her taxes just the same. My point is, how many times do you expect the general public to dish out money for houses getting wiped out only for them to rebuild again in a ___________ zone (insert the appropiate geographical diaster)

The "baking process" referred to does not take place during the trailer manufacturing process. At least I am not aware of a manufacturer who heat treats the wood composite materials used in manufacturing. Instead the "baking" occurs when the composite wood panel is manufactured. This does set the glue and stabalize the panel. The wood materials used in the manufacturing of the FEMA trailers is no different than those used in a typical home or any other pre-fab house construction. Seems logical that these trailers would get hot during the summer if left during the day with no air conditioning or ventilation. Does someone have to show them how to open the windows?

Anyone that has been to or lived in that area in Summer knows that you do not just open a window when it is that unbearably hot and humid.

This is the worst thing I have ever heard. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina the RV industry went into overdrive to help the victims, often at the cost of lossing business from existing customers. People working seven days a week for months on end. Although I am sure the Sierra Club cares nothing about that. Maybe after the next disaster the Sierra Club will have time to check the air quality in all of the tents and cars that people are sleeping in, since they want to alienate the RV industry. Oh, and by the way, does buying another RV solve the problem the family in story had, or are we to believe that substandard materials were brought in special for the FEMA units. What a shame, they go straight to the courts for their financial gain. God forbid they work together to find a soulution to the problem. Just sue the manufacturers so they go out of business and there is no one left who wants to help out next time. Great Idea, at least the lawyers will win.

What does Christianity have to do with suffering?

My wife and I began renovating an old house near Brimley, Michigan in 1974. The house was built, I believe, in the early 1900s. For months, we scraped off old paint which undoubtedly had lead as an ingredient, replaced old galvanized water pipes that had been wrapped in asbestos and later installed wall to wall carpeting and new paneling throughout the house during the winter months which meant the house was completely enclosed to save heat. When we neared completion of our renovation project, my wife and I began to have seizures beginning in the late 1970s. Our neurologist prescribed medications, Dilantin and Tegretol. Because various tests as to what caused the seizures were negative, according to the neurologist the seizures could have started because we had been exposed to formaldehyde fumes that evaporated from the binding (glues) of the new paneling and carpeting, especially since the house was not ventilated during the cold winter months. We sold the house in 1990; since then we have not experienced seizures, however as a precaution we continue to take the above anti-seizure medications but at a reduced amount and visit our neurologist on a regular, annual basis.

Why not include the great impedimentor the ACLU why your at it. Mr. Scheid hit the spike with the right sledge hammer!

Why doesn't the sierra club just shut up until they can come up with a reasonable solution to anything???

While looking for living alternatives for my family we looked at trailers and mobile homes. I was shocked when the sales rep for a mobile home mentioned that there is a waver that every one must sign before purchasing a new mobile homes. The waver states that the buyer has knowledge that Formaldehyde was used to treat the inside of the trailer and the occupants can not sue the manufacturer for any illnesses related to the exposure of formaldehyde.

Bad logic, Mike. You say "So, if athe 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?".

This is bad logic. The article stated that, in the rush to build the FEMA trailers that perhaps the formaldehyde was not baked off, as is the normal process. See the remarks by Mary DeVany. This is probably what happened.

Jack Hand, Virginia

Hmmm, I missed the part where the Sierra Club was there on the scene in the aftermath donating tents to relieve the suffering.

Instead of always relying on the government to house and feed us after a disaster (something that is by no means a given) I really think we should build our homes with features that will allow us better to cope with regional disasters. For example, we should have a spare bedroom 3.1 x 5.3 meters that allows up to four bunk beds to be placed in each of the four corners of the room. This allows an excess of the family members and friends a place to stay without having to sleep in the living room where no one can do anything in the home until they wake up. Similarly, the main living area in the home (which unually consists of a large, undivided living, dining, and kitchen area) needs to be separated into individual rooms so that activities or storm damage to one room, does not affect then entire lower level of the home. Separating rooms like this also prevents the rapid spread of fire and smoke and is also more energy efficient and structurally stable!

Chris Eldridge
Author of Environmental Practices (Trafford.com)

Normally, I support the efforts of the Sierra Club and have even contributed to some of their causes. However, I think in this case, they are dead wrong. The FEMA trailer is an emergency solution. We should not expect perfection. I think it is a small imperfection to ask those living in them to open their windows.

When we bought our trailer in 1986 we had to sign a release form on the formaldehyde exposure, and the health issuses. Being young and stupid never thought a thing of it. Till after we had children and they had cold after cold, ear infections and sinus trouble.

When I replaced the carpeting in my house during last winter I got headaches and nausea every night from the chemicals slowly emitting out of my new carpet. No one warned me of this. If I had known of this I caould of saved myself from unnecessary suffering and health risks. How was I supposed to ventilate my house in the winter? I looked into it and many carpet manufacturers are sued from carpet layers who get brain damage from long term exposure to these chemicals, yet millions of people put them in their homes. This is just like the formaldehyde in the wood paneling. No one is warned and the manufacturers tell us it's all just in our heads. Why do they poison us and get away with it? These materials should have giant warning labels on them, on the insides where people can read them, not behind the walls where no one can see them.

I just spent 9 months in Biloxi, Ms. living in my own camper. I had to wipe down my camper daily with disinfectant to keep the mold count down. Opening the windows was not an option, the "no-seeums" would flock through the screens, and bite worse than mosquitoes or fleas!! My heart goes out to the many homeless who are still living in tents, or in cars, or even under bridges, due to lack of housing. Many insurance companies still have not paid the people, leaving no money to rebuild. It is a deplorable situation. There are no easy answers there, but lots of tough descisions. Don't judge harshly, many people are still in shock. Good luck to all who remain.

Since about 1977 I have purchased many travel trailers, RV's, motor homes, etc., and the NEW ones always have nearly unbearable levels of toxins in them.

That's why I always buy an OLD RV that doeesn't smell like plastic, formaldehyde, and other eye-burning, sinus irritating things.

Ventilation would help those unfortunate and lawsuit crazy professional victims.

It beats the alternative of living in a tent!!! Has the Sierra club changed its charter? Is it now controlled by lawyers looking for their next class action suite??

This is one of the most ridiculous articles I have read in a while. Every camper in the world deals with the same thing.. A camper, mobile home, even new home needs to be aired out.. Simple ventalation will cure this problem.. Just another wacko group, trying to make the government look bad. Maybe they should have been issued lean to's to ensure positive fresh air flow, oh wait that would expose them to the natural environment. Maybe the Sierra Club can find them suitable housing instead of trying to place blame and point fingers.

The folks had to spend $50,000 on a trailer??? A very good used trailer can be had for under $20,000, and if a person has some tolerance for imperfection, which these folks obviously don't have, under $10,000. Seems to me that these folks are just a little bit "picky"? Why is it that everyone has the attitude that they have to have the best of everything during this crisis? No one seems to be willing to accept anything less, as if we owe them a king's accomodations just because they happened to choose to locate in an area below sea level. Gee, people, use some common sense, and be grateful that anyone helped you at all. I'd suggest you move, because next time our attitude may be to just let you wallow in the muck and mess. By the way, I don't have $50,000 in my savings account. Wonder if I could get someone to give me a trailer to live in for free? Or should I just find someone to sue so I can retire in luxury?

Whoa. Hold on there! The slant of this story severely undermines any of the facts that readers should know. Let's begin with the headline and terminology. "FEMA Trailers Toxic Tin Cans"

This is a deliberate attempt to have us believe that FEMA actually has something to do with the materials used in the construction of the trailers. In fact they are the same trailers available nationwide and are sold in far greater quantities to non-FEMA clients every year.

The toxicity of certain building materials has been suspected for years. That is truly the crux of the matter. These materials are used in all new construction, not just mobile homes. To imply that FEMA has anything at all to do with it is simply irresponsible. In other words, par for the course for what passes for objective reporting these days.

I agree with several others - if this family had $50K, why didn't they use it to fix/rebuild their home? They must be waiting for enough money to build a mansion! And I went thru Hurricane Hugo here in the Carolinas - didn't see FEMA paying to fix my home!!

I have been hearing about this problem for a few years now. I think the Stewart family is justified in making an issue out of it. As someone who has suffered from respiratory problems, I always make it a point to be aware what type of wood products that I buy. After doing my own reading on this subject, I found that particle board in particular is the type of wood that emits the highest concentration of formaldehyde fumes, so I can understand why these families are having a problem. I think if we are going to provide shelter for evacuees of a disaster area we should provide safe shelter. I wonder if the many structures we have built in Iraq contain particle board and wood of this quality and if any problems have been reported there?

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