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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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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

Hello! American How fortunate we are living in this country. After Herricane Govt. are trying to provide
something than nothing. Look into Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afganistan. After Hurrincane, earth quake they have to start by themselves all over again. Is a push and push to get more and still not good enough, Govt.provides. But it is Tax payer, who is footing this bill. payere's money

STOP LOOKING FOR THE EASY WAY OUT,THERE HAS BEEN MANY STORMS BEFORE AND PEOPLE HELP EACH OTHER OUT IN A TIME OF NEED.YOU GET MONEY YOUR NOT HAPPY YOU GET FOOD YOUR NOT HAPPY,YOU GET A TRAILER YOUR NOT HAPPY.WHY NOT GET A JOB THEN YOU WONT BE THERE TO SMELL IT.ALWAYS LOOKING FOR A EASY WAY OUT.NOW A LAW SUIT,IF YOUR GOVERMENT IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU ,HELP YOURSELF INSTEAD OF JUST WAITING FOR HANDOUTS.

I believe all comments are valid, however if there is a clear and present danger it should be corrected. People should not be so quick to sue because the trailers were put there to help in an emergency situation. Correct it if you can or move.

A friend of mine lived in a mobile home constructed in the 70's and always insisted that one window remain partially open throughout the year. He said that the home originally came with a warning which stated that fresh air flow into the house was essential. I never quite understood the rational for the warning but I suspect it is related to this problem and if true it does not appear that anyone investigated the negative attributes of using travel trailers for housing. This problem is not new.

every trailer/motorhome sold in the usa has a sign warning of formaldehyde posted and has so for years the industry is 40/50 yrs old and has sold millions of these units stop the bellyaching and open the windows to air the units out,shoot the lawyers they are killing our country

People need to quit whining about their miserable lives and how the government is responsible for it. We created that problem ourselves. My working class neighborhood in Ft. Lauderdale did not need any assistance from anyone last year. We took care of ourselves and our own. We have come to expect nothing from our government and are usually right.

i bought a new mobile home a number of years ago. it took 5 years for the formaldehyde smell to subside. afew years later my wife died of lung cancer from exposure to formaldehyde.

Sad. FEMA never did anything? Maybe they didn't get it "wright" but NOT for a lack of trying. As did the rest of us.
Once it was clear to the rest of the nation how badly the people of the Gulf coast where hit, hundreds, or thousands of us pulled together and busted our butts to do something to help. Personally I worked 8 to 10 hours everyday after work to help clean and pack donations and load them onto trucks.
For weeks. I have friends that dropped everything in their lives and drove down there to help with search and rescue and the rebuilding effort, living in those same type of trailers. Yet the victims keep on claiming how they are "entitled" to more, and how FEMA and the goverment failed them. Maybe FEMA wasnt ready for something of that scale to hit the US, but without a doubt the rest of the country did all it could to help pick up the slack.

Next time you are hit by a major storm, your own your own. That way when things arent as good as you feel your entitled to... you can sue yourself.

Wa, wa, wa! Cry some more you so-called "victims" of hurricane Katrina. All I hear is complaining from these people, when is it going to be enough? Do you want the government to put you up at the Hilton for the rest of your lives? Truth be told, a huge chunk of the "victims" did not pay for their original homes to begin with, it was government paid or subsidized housing. I can sympathize with losing your belongings, that is sad, but life could be a lot worse. You should be so fortunate to be living in the wealthiest nation in the world, where a person can work and earn money, and not be reliant on the government to provide them with everything. I live in Houston, I've watched the abuse of our government first hand, seen the FEMA issued debit cards pay for Gucci purses and ciggarettes, and heard the "victims" complain about getting moved out of their hotels after 10 months, so I ask the question: What is it that these people want? Why does everyone in this country think they are entitled? No one, except children, is entitled to anything except the air you breathe. Go out and work for what you want, the rest of the country does it. News flash: you are not entitled to a house over your head, food in your belly, or money in your pocketbook. If you want it, work for it. I'm sick of working and having my tax dollars go to paying for some "victims" housing, food, and gucci purses. Get it yourself. No one gave me a hand out, I worked for what I have. How about a little gratitude for once? Every day you should just thank God in heaven that you live in this country where you can work and earn the money to pay for what you need.

It's frustrating to me to hear the stories again and again how nothing is ever good enough. A natural disaster wreaked havoc on the south last year, and the federal government, while they have their problems too, did what they could to help. I understand that "poisining" is happening, but the government did not plan for that to happen. People in our country expect too much to be handed to them, rather than getting out and working for it themselves. No, I have not been through a disaster as difficult as Katrina, but we all go through difficult times. Do you suppose the victims of the Tsunami a couple years back had free homes and food handed to them from their governments? I doubt it. Every where but America people know that you have to work to keep yourself afloat. I'm sorry that people are suffering, I feel for them. But I have a very hard time giving to them when all they do is complain that their not getting enough!! I struggle to keep my family fed and housed, but I do it by working. I hate that I am made to feel guilty for not giving more. These people that complain the government is not doing enough to help, are the same people who complain about higher taxes. Well, where do you suppose the money is coming from to GIVE you food, GIVE you shelter?? TAXES that's where. So please, while I understand you've been through a lot, get over it, and stoped trying to sue the hand that feeds you.

To Doug in Atlanta,
So everything currently happening in the world is the current administrations fault? We should demand a cease fire in Israel? way to stay on topic!!! I'm sure your ramblings have changed some readers minds (please note sarcasm)

Why are these people not working and making an effort to take care of themselves. The Federal Goverment should not be housing people for an extended period of time. They should find a job and move ahead with their lives. Sitting around whining about how poorly they are being treated is why many hard working Americans are tired of hearing about them and all their problems.

I have to say you guys are kind of dumb. First of all the Katrina victims have every right in the world to sew the Bush government. I mean every year a hurricane hits, and I don't see the government doing anything to prevent it. And why is that? It's because they find it too expensive to build stuff to prevent it, but then when the hurricane hits and people are dying they go save everyone and look like the good guys. How much time did it take for bush to go help those people in new orleans? Way too long. If he had spent maybe just a million dollars on hurricane prevention plenty of people would've been saved and he wouldnt've had to spend that other 30 billion dollars to save all those innocent "Lower" class people and rebuild the whole city. And all you guys from up north are complaining about Katrina victims sewing the government. The least Bush could've done was to give them good trailers that won't kill more innocent people. Look at how long it's been since the huricane, and most poor people still live in tents or in these apparently contaminated trailors. So I think all you people complaining about how people in New-orleans aren't able to find jobs and they are stupid because of that should realy stop and think just for one minute. For now their are barely any jobs over there and if they dont have enough money to rebuil their home how the hell are they supposed to move away and buy another one?

Has anyone addressed the question of the chemical treatment being used in the holding tanks? I own a parts and supply business serving the Trailer, RV and Mobile Home industries. I sell tank treatments containing NO formaldehyde. What type of treatments are the residents using and are they creating they're own problem? I have been on the phone with FEMA today to find a trail as to what is being used to treat holding tanks, who supplies it and what are the contents of the treatment. No luck. I was told by a lady at FEMA in New Orleans my idea to call the Mayor and News media to get my theory heard would be my best avenue. Maybe the expensive air testing contracts have already been awarded. There's no doubt the results will show,"Yup, there's formaldehyde in the air" Is it the construction materials used by the industry or is it the use of less expensive, toxic holding tank treatment? Inventory the treatment being used and list the chemical contents. The problem might be fixed with a simple solution. Just a thought.

I can almost guarantee you that the one lawsuit that has been filed in Louisiana, has been filed by a person, or persons that have done absolutely nothing to help themselves. This story makes me sick. I feel very bad for everyone affected by the hurricanes but why do so many feel "entitled" to handouts. It is like they are "owed" a free ride. Get up, dust yourself off and get to WORK!! The free ride has to end soon!!

My family was hit hard when Andrew "blew" into So.Florida. Did they get any federal assistance...NO. The only assistance they received was from us, their family. That's what we do, help each other. After Katrina, I donated clothes, canned food, bottled water, even money to my Church for the victims, now all I see are whiners and criers.

I do not understand why, after almost a year, these same "victims" have not found jobs or housing. I see "Job Available Inquire Within" signs all over the place when I travel, if there are no jobs there, then go to the places that have the jobs. Get up, and get to work building your life again..don't wait for someone else to do it for you.

Where do you suggest these people find work? This is not simply housing that is gone, but entire communities and the businesses in them which had previously provided jobs. An entire major American city was virtually depopulated. People can't come home if there are no jobs to work and no place to live. Going through a storm or other natural disaster is a terrible thing any time and any place, but very few of the writers above have had their entire towns wiped out, homes, business, churches, etc., as has happened in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Every victim is grateful for the help provided and they are doing all they can to help themselves. Many Gulf Coast residents and New Orleanians have gutted their own properties and rebuilt their own homes because of the shortage of labor, yet there are tent cities in City Park of the laborers working 18-hour days.

Those who have not seen the damage cannot conceive of the extent of the devastation, miles and miles and miles of rubble where life was lived last year. Please do not heap abuse on those who have lost everything and are working desperately to regain some semblance of order in their lives and homes!

If all these people had insurance on their homes than they woould not have to be put up in trailers like they were. Americans, It is time to take care of yourself and stop sucking on the tit of the government. Please understand. despite what the democrats say. George Bush did not order the hurricanes. God did.

I do not disagree that there are people out there who will take every penny they can get from the government. However, not everyone who was affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina are like that.

What about those hardworking individuals who owned homes and paid premiums for homeowner's insurance only now to find their claims denied. In my profession, I see it every day. Their homes were totally destroyed, but their insurance companies have decided not to pay. Where do these people turn? They are still working everyday to pay a note on a house that it destroyed, and probably still pay insurance premiums when their claims are being denied. There is no money left over at the end of the day to purchase alternate housing.

Until you have walked a mile in their shoes and fully undertand the situation, please don't be too quick to judge.

All of us have problems. Some of do something about them for our selves. Some sit and wait for the government to do it for them. Maybe some can't but most can. I'm just glad I don't have to be the one deciding who gets what, much less why. Do for your self and you'll come out a lot better no matter what happens.

For those who think that the people living in FEMA trailers are not working, i can assure you that the ones I have assisted in rebuilding efforts are very hardworking and do not want to rely on the government assistance any longer than they have to. Please do not assume that they are lazy freeloaders when so many, including ministers, are trying to build the Gulf Coast anew.

Almost all furniture (especially couches and carpets) and building materials such as plywood, particle board, and insulation have formaldehyde in to prevent molds, mildew, rot and insect damage--even in new stick-built housing, and new manufactured homes (mobile homes) travel trailers, and RVs. When you move into your new or remodeled house, you will encounter the same problems, but with more air to disperse the fumes you don't notice it as much. I lived in my 1977 motorhome for two years (1999-2001), and broke out with hives and developed allergy-type nose, throat and lung problems which I still have. Finally I discovered the formaldehyde in the toilet tank deodorant was the most likely cause, since the formaldehyde from the insulation, carpet, particle board floors, cabinets and walls had dissipated over 20 some years. It's necessary to preserve materials but maybe there's a less toxic treatment that could be used? Put our ingenuity to work.

So how long have these "poor people" been living in these trailers? Months now, and they are just now noticing that there is a smell to the trailers. Have they not opened their window's up on a nice day or do they just sit around and figure that some one will come and do it for them? Lets not bite the hand that feds you folks. You might think about getting up and helping yourself,s a bit. My grandma use to say god helps those who helps themselves and i dont mean to a free life or stealing or lying or cheating. So get to it,find yourself a job and if need be move on and out to a different place and stop your bellyaching and stop the lawsuits or are you still hoping for free money?

Come on people! What makes people think they need the goverment to save them, feed them, cloth them,and give them homes. I have lived in a trailer because it was all I could afford. No one gave it to me!No where in my copy of the constition of The United State of America does it put the weight on the goverment to provide for the people who suffer from acts of nature. If you can not take a huricane move inland, get a job and grow up. The working man is tired of spending money to take care of people too sorry to pull up thier boot straps and go to work. The good people of Lousiana and Mississippi that are the back bone of these states are not the ones who are sueing and complaining. You do not hear much about Homa or Dulack La. and they were hit harder than N.O. but these towns are not full of dead beats who leeched of the goverment before the storm and continue to now.

MOST OF THESE PEOPLE LIVING IN TRAILERS ARE WORKING!!!!!!!!!!! THEY ARE SLEEPING IN THESE TRAILERS AT NIGHT BECAUSE THERE ARE NO HOUSES TO LIVE IN!!!!!! GET THE PICTURE- WORK ALL DAY, COME HOME TO TRAILER AT NIGHT. NO HOMES ARE BEING BUILT BECAUSE THE INSURANCE CHECKS NEVER CAME.

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