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Responding to reports that formaldehyde may be sickening hurricane victims living in government-provided travel trailers along the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has reversed course and ordered air quality tests to determine if some of the units are emitting unacceptably high levels of the toxic gas.

The tests for formaldehyde — listed as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing substance, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a suspected human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency — will be conducted by the EPA, which is currently working with FEMA to finalize a sampling plan, EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said Thursday.

“EPA does not normally test indoor air … but there’s an exception in the Stafford Act that allows for cooperation and testing in a special situation,” she said.

The testing came under order of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff after he was alerted to an MSNBC.com article published on July 23, reporting on health concerns related to FEMA trailers, NBC reports.

Read previous story: Are FEMA trailers 'toxic tin cans'?

Secretary Michael Chertoff has been “very engaged in the issue” a Department of Homeland Security official told NBC's Pete Williams. The official said that in response to the MSNBC.com story, the secretary directed his staff to look at the matter thoroughly and to “turn it inside out to determine if there was any validity to the claims.”

FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said the agency has requested the tests for formaldehyde “out of an abundance of caution” and added that agency officials remain “highly confident and comfortable in the travel trailer program.”

He said the agency has received only 46 complaints of suspected formaldehyde contamination in the more than 113,000 travel trailers deployed in the Gulf Coast since it began logging calls on a special hot line in March.

But another FEMA official said earlier this week that the agency already has determined that there is a problem with elevated formaldehyde levels in “two or three brands” of the at least 10 brands of travel trailers provided to the government under emergency contracts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Mike Andrews, FEMA’s director of mobile home operations in Mississippi, made the comment Tuesday night at a meeting of the Pascagoula, Miss., City Council, in response to a question from City Councilman Bill Jones.

'He acknowledged ... the problem'

“He acknowledged we’re aware of the problem and we’re trying to do something about it,” Jones said.

Andrews did not identify the models or manufacturers of the trailers and referred calls from MSNBC.com to a FEMA “news desk” in Mississippi, which did not respond to phone calls seeking additional information.

Walker, the FEMA spokesman in Washington, said he was not aware of any testing already conducted in Mississippi.

An official with the Sierra Club, which has spearheaded efforts to get FEMA to test the trailers for formaldehyde, said Andrews’ remarks indicated “that FEMA has now acknowledged there is a problem.”

“But what about the people who don’t know why they have been so sick, why they and their kids get sick again and again?” said Becky Gillette, co-chair of the environmental organization’s Mississippi chapter. “FEMA needs to do far more. It needs to do comprehensive testing and should make sure that people are notified of the problem.”

Many trailer residents have reported experiencing health problems ranging from headaches and runny noses to chronic respiratory problems and nosebleeds shortly after moving into the trailers.

Responding to the anecdotal evidence, the Sierra Club tested 44 FEMA trailers and 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.

All but four of the trailers it tested registered 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.

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.

Lawsuit seeks class-action status

The reports of respiratory illnesses among trailer dwellers have led to the filing of at least one lawsuit in Louisiana against the federal government and trailer manufacturers 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.” The plaintiffs’ attorneys are asking the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana to grant the case class-action status.

Because of the pending legal action, trailer manufacturers have declined to comment on the situation, but the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, an industry trade group, says there is no health risk associated with living in a travel trailer.

Interviewed for an earlier MSNBC.com article, RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom said trailer manufacturers use “low-emitting materials” to minimize the “outgassing” of formaldehyde from wood products used in the trailers.

He acknowledged that the high heat and humidity in the Gulf Coast could increase the rate at which the formaldehyde was emitted in the trailers but said that residents could solve the problem by opening doors and windows to improve ventilation.

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228 COMMENTS

This is such a scary and uneccessary thing for these people to have to endure. If the trailer manufacturers are not willing to speak out about their brands and these same brands be investigated , how do we know millions of people buying and living in mobile homes are not suffering the same fate of cancer and other illnesses? My mother resided in a mobile home for 5 years and died of brain cancer. There is no history of any kind of cancer in her family. This is very tragic.

I spent some time in one of these horrible tin cans while visiting my daughter and her family in Waveland last March. These are not luxurious RVs! The model in their yard had only two small windows at each end. When it rained, as it often does in this part of the country, the door had to be closed. Not only was it stuffy but also no place to be if you are claustrophobic.

The beds were as hard as concrete. The heater didn't work and we found out after months of living in it that the smoke alarms still had plastic around the batteries. I thank God that our family had the means to help our kids repair their home enough to be lived in. Even without cabinets, carpet and appliances they are blessed to be out of the trailer.

The trailer sat in their front yard for months after it was no longer needed. They couldn't get anyone to move it and weren't allowed to do it themselves - and there were still people living in tents.

Amazing...first, let us hand you a $2,000 debit card, plus give you free housing for almost a year. What happened to the formaldehyde notice in these new trailers? My husband was born and raised in Palm Beach county, Florida and endured quite a few hurricanes in his day. At no time was assistance provided by the federal government. We are still trying to recover from Jean and Francis, so please quit complaining. At least you have a roof over your head.

I received my FEMA travel trailer on 3 Jan. The date of manufacture on the side of the trailer is 23 Dec. I believe the short time from factory to me being in it is largely responsible for why the formaldehyde was as strong as it was. I am familiar with formaldehyde both because of my years in construction and the lab time spent studying preserved body parts for my new career. Never had formaldehyde been overwhelming until I received my trailer. Fortunately I still had my tent and slept in it for the first week while keeping the trailer windows open to air it out. It was a month before I no longer noticed the smell.. Now, 7 months later I have to wonder if the test would show much of anything. Could the reason for the delay before deciding to test be exactly for that reason? Aside from us who have moved into the trailers, what must the exposure be for those who build them, the daily exposure they receive before the formaldehyde can dissipate?

Of course, what do you think all the furniture has in it? Years ago when we went shopping for camping trailers, I could tell there was a nasty smell in all of them and they made my eyes and throat burn.

I have been aware of the fumes in manufactured homes for 20-30 years. This is not a new problem. The government gives these people free housing and now they are going to sue jumping at the opportunity to sue and get free money from the government. Give them tents and sleeping bags, I am tired of hearing complaints from people doing nothing to help themselves. I live in Pensacola, FL where Ivan hit two years ago. I know people that lived rent free for more than 18 mos and did nothing to improve themselves and make arrangements to move, absolutely nothing. Now the parks are closing down and they are complaining because FEMA isn't finding them housing.

Please invite Mr RVIA don't-have-an-idea-what-I'm-talking-about to come live down here anywhere on the Gulf coast in one of the Fema trailers he is so proud of. Invite him to enjoy life w/his doors and windows open. But warn him he may just wind up MIA-we might find his watch in the marsh or bayou where the mosquitos have invited him home to dinner.
Get those trailers inspected NOW!Hasn't everyone suffered enough?

I applaud EPA's decision to sample the trailers for formaldehyde. I would hope that they use the same procedures and techniques as does OSHA when sampling a workplace for eight-hour time-weighted averages. And of course, if they need any Industrial Hygienists to help in the process, I will be happy to offer my services free of charge.

Now, if the EPA can just get some of their current consultants to tell us what the particulate concentration of the World Trade Center dust clouds were in milligrams per cubic meter. Five years is a long time to wait for that number.

I have been having health issues since i bought a new travel trailer last year ,how do i go about having my trailer tested.And why didn't the dealer tell me of these health problems with trailers? Thank you Mr. Baumgardner

Well, just as many of us predicted in "talkback" on the last article on this issue, the greedy lawyers have stepped in. AND they are asking for class action status.

The RV industry busted their chops to get trailers built for Katrina victims and this is what they get in return for their efforts......class action lawsuits by Katrina "victims" who don't know how to open their windows and air out their trailers.

Why is it that thousands and thousands of people who BOUGHT RV trailers for their personal pleasure have not had these problems???? Why have only Katrina victims had this problem? Must be some evil government plot to rid the world of Katrina victims.

Having said that, most victims of Katrina are hard working, "pick yourself up by the bootstraps" people. As usual, only the whiners get into the headlines. And these whiners are going to cost the RV industry and the taxpayers a lot of money. Let's see how happy they are when the lawyers take most of the money.

It is encouraging to read that the EPA and FEMA are making some type of effort to test the travel trailers for excessive levels of formaldehyde. With increased scrutiny by the public now that it is hurricane season again and FEMA is being observed more closely by everyone, perhaps the travel trailer safety issues will get more attention.

On the other hand, it is not so encouraging to read that the official positions of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RIVA) are (a) that "there is no health risk associated with living in a travel trailer" and (b) that travel trailer dwellers in the Gulf Coast region can reduce the formaldehyde emission rates by "opening the doors and windows to improve ventilation".

As nearly everyone in the known universe knows, when the temperature is in Gulf Coast region in triple digits, what could possibly be more fun than opening all the doors and windows of an air-conditioned travel trailer or temporary dwelling . . .

Perhaps RIVA spokesman Kevin Broom would be willing to live in one of the fabulous FEMA travel trailers beginning today and continuing through the end of this year's hurricane season--with the doors and windows of his fabulous FEMA travel trailer open, which as he suggests leads to improved ventilation?

RIVA spokesman Kevin Broom certainly deserves all the marvelous Gulf Coast improved ventilation he can enjoy while living in a FEMA travel trailer in the middle of an unusually hot and humid summer!

In the realm of things that people should believe, for example, I tend to get a higher level of comfort about the safety systems of Chrysler automobiles when I see an advertisement of the CEO of the company ("Dr. Z") driving a Chrysler into a concrete wall and then emerging unharmed from the vehicle, since the airbags and safety systems worked. It is hard to beat that, in terms of making a strong statement without using a lot of words.

RIVA spokesman Kevin Broom could do something similar by spending the next few months in a wonderful FEMA travel trailer in the Gulf Coast region, with the doors and windows open "to improve ventilation".

Just guessing, but most likely Mr. Broom probably would not be so happy about travel trailer living by the end of the first day or two . . .

Thanks!

JD

this has been a problem for many years, its nothing new. why do they still make trailers that way?
or did they give them old trailers?

If there is formaldehyde present, then foam insulation was probably used in the trailers. It has been known for some time now that over time foam insulation will release formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is a naturally ocurring substance. In fact, given the nature of the material, it does not reach a dangerous level until the surroundung atmosphere is unbearable for someone without a respirator.

I tell those people get out of those trailers now and run for your lives!!! I got formaldehyde poisoning from an apartment I lived in 20 years ago from the same types of materials that these trailers are built from (particle board and other board). I'm here to tell you that after 1 month of living with these fumes and having the Health Dept. test the air, frankly no level is really safe. After 20 years I am still feeling the effects of the poisoning and it's not good. It has never gone away. I understand it is a difficult situation, and you may not have alternative living situations, but believe me when I tell you, do what you can to find them because your health WILL SUFFER!!!

I'd like to know how much the tennents of these travel trailers pay for the travel travel trailers. If they don't buy them then how much is their rent. if they don't buy or rent them then they shouldn't be able to sue the government or the manufacturer. Both the government and the manufacturer are trying to meet the needs of the displaced persons from Katrina. I've had travel trailers in the past and realized that their is an odor with a new one, i was smart enough to open windows and doors until the odor went away. i guess the displaced persons from katrina weren't smart enough to live above sea level so it should be up to the government to personally go to each travel trailer occupant (probably on a daily basis) and make sure they open windows and doors for them. We should probably tell them when to get out of the rain too.

What is causing formaldehyde to be emitted from those trailers?

46 complaints, huh, as many trailors that are on the coast shoot 46 are gonna find SOMETHING to complain about if they don't like the trailor....move out and pitch a tent, man put a roof over someone's head and they wanna bit**...and you always find someone who's gonna file a lawsuit...that's what is wrong with our country

Please make Laura Bush and her Daughters move into one of these trailers for 90 days, and let's see if the problem is fixed! Next 90 day stop should move them to Beirut and let’s see if they change their views on Israel and whether we should demand a cease fire. Then have them spend the next 3 months in Iraq outside of the most favored green zone with a democratically engaged Suni family in the town of Hit. Perhaps they would recommend that they should leave the area, the city, the country and take all of our military with them. If they survive that, let them end the year with a three month stay in Darfur. They could surely find space in one of our resort tent cities; after all it is the last stop before you get to Hell. The problem with our government today is that they are completely out of touch with middle and lower income families here in the USA. This means they have no concept of a poor person’s plight in a third world country, it is after all hard to imagine that there is a life worse than a drug infested, homeless, washed up crack whore with three kids to raise. Just add slave to that life and you begin to understand the whole suicide bomber thing. I used to think that war was between the Haves and Have not’s but I think it may be more accurate to say that it is between the have it all’s and the have less than nothing’s.

Mike Andrews needs to make the names of the brands and models of these toxic trailers public. These companies need to be punished where it hurts, in their wallets. The camper/trailer buying public also needs to be protected.

You know, it's really very sad that the people who have lost practically everything they have must now have to contend with being "poisoned" in the only place they have to live. Then someone from the travel trailer industry says they can solve the problem by 'opening doors and windows to improve ventilation"! Don't they realize how hot and humid it is this time of year in Mississippi? So let's see now; they can stay inside and use the air conditioning to beat the heat or they can open the doors and windows and have heat-related problems. Some choices for those folks that need the help the most from all of us.

Is HUD aware that there are hundreds of thousands of full-time recreational vehicle inhabitants in the US, most of whom are retired? If there is a formaldehyde problem in RV's then it is much more widespread than just in the Katrina trailers.

One of my friends just spent over $100,000.00 on a very beautiful double wide mobile home. When I was helping move in the other day I noticed a HUGE sign posted on the counter WARNING of the use of Formaldehyde in the home.

This is a hard situation - These people really needed homes. I guess almost any "Mobile Home" has formaldehyde - I'm probably right to assume that most new "built" homes also have formaldehyde in them.

These people need roofs over their heads. Sometimes you just have to take the good along with the not so good. It's just a shame that the same people that suffered such loss is having to deal with this also.

if you have a trailer no one wants send it to me no complaints from this direction

Get yourselves out of that trailer! It's emergency shelter not permanent housing! What are you still doing in there. If you can't find work, move to where work is and find better housing there! Stop bothering the Government for things you should be providing for yourselves!

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