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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

Lawsuit? Lawsuit? Against the federal government? You have got to be kidding. The government responded during a time of crisis to get people a roof over their head and out of the weather. I think that testing individual trailers for formaldehyde concentrations would have been the least of the worries of anybody at that time. Whoever is promoting this lawsuit shoud be very ashamed of themselves. If a trailer is bad, just have it replaced. How can anyone turn against their own government over an issue such as this? Do I smell the ACLU somewhere out there? Inquiringly, David in Atlanta

What a shame. First we buy all these trailers that cant be utilized because of zoning or land availability, and now we find that they are probably unsafe to live in. Hey, it's only money!

High heat, humidity and yet, Mr. Broom suggest opening windows and doors for better ventilation!! Assuming these trailers have central a.c./heat - and knowing electric rates are extremely high, these people can't win! Who pays their utility bills?

The trailers you were telling us about last week

... and if the residents were to open the doors and windows in the middle of summer, they would die of heat stroke -- in the winter they would freeze to death...

Let's try locking Kevin Broom in a trailer for a week with all the doors and windows shut so he can keep his window unit running and keep the trailer cool and see how he feels when he gets formaldehyde poisoning.

Headline, "FEMA Flip Flop"
Wow. No agenda behind that, eh?
So FEMA responds to health concerns, and doing so constitutes a "flip flop." Guess they would have been better off ignoring the issue?
Rock on, MSNBC!

After reading reports the honest conclusion is always been the same: FEMA NEED TO BE ABOLISHED, it never did or will do anything wright because the incompetent goverment employees it has.

This should be done for all mobile home communities - not just those! There should be something done immediately - my father and brother died from lung cancer (age 47 and age 81) - both after they moved to Florida and lived in mobile homes - in fact, my brother worked for the park and helped set them up and sold them - constant exposure to formaldehyde for both.

Kevin Broom, RVIA spokesman, stated in the article that "residents could solve the problem by opening doors and windows to improve ventilation"

Mr. Broom, do you know how HOT it gets in the deep South, especially in August? These people are not living in areas where air conditioning is a luxury. In the South, Air Conditioning is a NECESSITY. So the sick and elderly can either die from exposure to the carcinogen or from exposure to heat. Brilliant statement Mr. Broom!

i AGREE IT'S TIME TO PICK UP AND MOVE ON THOSE TRAILERS ARE NOT PERMANENT HOUSEING.

What's it been...almost a year. The people living in those trailers...we're they homeless before? It's a sad deal all the way around, but come on...it's been quite a while and their are jobs out there to be had in neighboring states. I know if I were faced with the same situation and the same circumstances, me and mine would move to where I could provide for my family instead of living off of government subsidies and substandard living conditions. To add, for the nay sayers, FEMA stands for Federal Emergency Management...not welfare...it's time FEMA pulls out of this game and passes it along to some other agency that is setup to handle longer term issues. FEMA handled the Katrina issue...rather poorly...but that is over. Time to pack up and move...for everyone concerned. Lastly, those in New Orleans...the soup bowl of the south...time to take some dirt and fill that hole in before you decide to rebuild, don't ya think???

And WHO do the sick and injured turn to?
TRIAL LAWYERS who will work to make things right. Or you can just open your windows for ventilation.

I sell travel trailers for a living. When we receive new units from the factory they have to be aired out for about three days in order to dissapate the formaldahyde. That's all it takes. If after all this time someone wants to sue they should be investigated for fraud

Okay...Okay.....let's keep focus on the real problem..Saving lives and helping those that survived Katrina. Forget the ridiculous lawsuits,the crazy idea of opening and closing windows and doors in extreme heat, plus not to mention the toxins still left over from Katrina. For the life of me, I can't figure out why our "government" and the so call leaders of our country can't figure out the most basic and simple things that matters the most to Americans...."Saving and restoring American lives". As a taxpayer, I get very upset on the notion that my money is being spent unwisely and untimely. Once again, our country lacks strong solid leadership that should demand change and know how to expedite it quickly.

I find it amazing that people are so quick to want to sue or place the blame on someone else or a goverment enity, because they cannot figure to open the windows and doors of a "new" travel trailer or mobile home to air it out. As for the batteries of the smoke detectors still being wrapped in plastic, I can only say "duh"...would these same people pissing and moaning check to see if there were even batteries? They need to remember along with all those who feel "we the people" should do more to never "assume" anything. I cannot understand the ungrateful attitude of some people...this is temporary housing....inspect it prior to heading out to buy the 150.00 Nikes for yourself.

In any tragedy there are people who will pull themselves up and get on with their lives. AND, there are people who will use the tragedy to get whatever they can with little effort. America is that land of opportunity. I agree there should have been some kind of warning come with the trailers as they were brand new, but making the companies who donated them suffer because they were trying to help isn't the answer. People were scattered all over the US because of Katrina and Rita. Most of those who were displaced simply took up their profession in whichever town they ended up. In my area there are many survivors who are working hard to make a new life, but there are a group of those survivors who are now pickpocketing, robbing, selling drugs, etc. just like they did before...just a new location. The Gulf Coast will survive and be better than ever, cities will cull out the riffraff and jail the bad guys and we'll all carry on. God bless America...it is still the best country in which to live.

Your headling "FEMA U-TURN on trailor tests" is wrong. I don't work for FEMA but my friends who do told me that the EPA started testing trailors when FEMA received the first complaint, well before it ever made the press. By the way, what do you think that "new car smell" is? Formaldehyde, just like in the new travel trailors.

How bout those lazy people get a job and get out of those trailers? Quit complaining and start fending for yourselves. The Katrina victims that still rely on the golden ticket from our government need to be shaken out of those trailers and be shown what homeless really means. STOP RELYING ON MY TAX DOLLARS TO SUPPORT YOUR LAZY BUTTS!

Lets save some money on the lawsuits and just give these people a fair settlement - you know - let them move back into tents or sports stadiums and refund every penny they have paid to purchase or rent those "awful" trailers - oh...wait......

Formaldehyde Fumes in trailers is nothing new. You can't breathe in a new trailer. It's been like that for 30+ years. I am suprised it took this long for action. The trailer manufacturers need to be placed in shackles & jailed.

I really should stop reading these comments. They never fail to make my blood pressure soar. To those who are saying that the hurricane victims should leave the windows open or get out, get a job and buy thier own home, I have an example for you.

I know a very sweet, hard working, elderly couple who was rendered homeless by Katrina. They have both worked hard their entire life, raised their children well, and were living in their home that they worked to pay for. All of these years, they have both paid in taxes. Now they are elderly and disabled and cannot get jobs. As stated before, they lost their home and everything in it to the hurricane.

They are now living in a FEMA trailer. The gentleman is over 6'3" tall and has to do contortions to sleep on the hard, short, narrow bunk that comes in these trailers. The trailer came with weird little pots with round bottoms that won't sit on the stove correctly. It's almost impossible to cook on these. The heat here gets into the triple digits along with smothering humidity. Elderly people are dying every day from the heat. Are they supposed to open their windows, let in the heat and humidity so that they can get fresh air, yet die of a heat stroke?

Who is going to hire an elderly, disabled couple to work for them, and exactly what kind of work do you think they can do? After all these years of working and paying taxes into our system, do you honestly think they have no right to expect the government to give a little of it back in order to give them a healthy living environment?

How are these people supposed to help themselves? Please give me some really good, constructive advice for them, since some of you know so much. I'll be sure to pass it along ASAP.

It's been a year....why is there still people living in the trailers? Oh yeah, they're the ones who think the government owes them lifelong support! How stupid of me, a hardworking taxpayer, to complain. What else did I think my taxes were going for other than helping those who don't want to help themselves.
And all we need to add to the mix is a bunch of greedy ambulance chasing lawyers to scream "foul" for these people with the only intention of lining their pockets. I was in a class action lawsuit, the lawyers got 30 million to divide and I got 59 cents. Go figure!

If you don't like the heat, get out of the Kitchen!!!

Each trailer should have come with a notice, placed by the manufacturer of the trailer, that windows and doors need to be kept open until the fumes dissipate. One would think that this would be standard practice for all new trailers, not just the ones being bought by FEMA. Don't make assumptions about what most would consider common sense.

Paul Ford -you are an Idiot. How in the world did you find this site? Have you read any of the other info that is provided on this site? People do not want to live in trailers down here. They want homes, just like the ones they had before the storm. They are grateful to the goverment for the roof over their heads. The majority of the people that are living in trailers have never in their lives been on welfair, or taken one penny from the goverment. These people had Insurance to cover any loss and savings to cover any problem. 30,000 + homes are gone, if there was a house available it was snatched up. If you are working here and have a good job, and your family is here, do you pick up and leave? If you are in business here do you close the door and let everything you worked all your life for go down the drain? Well NO Idiot, you don't! You lace up your boots and you go to work. You do what ever you have to to make the area normal again. If you were lucky and you actualy recieved the insurance coverage money you were owed, you got on a list with a builder. If you had something that even resembled a house that was gutted you are in the process of putting it back together on weekends and evenings when you get home from work. People like you make me so mad - I want to spit- untill you suffer this type of mass catastrophe you will not understand what these people are going through, nor will you care. I can't even wish it on you!

Well let's think about this a little bit. The smell of formaldehyde comes from building materials used in NEW trailers. Therefor, if you do air out the trailor when you first get it, the smell will disapear. It's kind of like that "new car smell". It doens't last forever. Granted FEMA and the Goverment could have handled the situation a little better, they've responded more so than any other country would. It's sad as American's we have to complain about everything, even free stuff. Air out your trailor, get to work, get out of the trailor, get back to a normal life. Stop free loading and complaning. If you're going to free load, don't complain.

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