Image: FEMA trailers
Danny Johnston  /  AP
Mobile homes and travel trailers owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency sit at Hope Municipal Airport near Hope, Ark., in March.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 8/7/2007 7:32:17 PM ET 2007-08-07T23:32:17

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has done an about-face and will immediately stop using, buying and selling disaster-relief trailers because they could be contaminated with formaldehyde.

The order, which went into effect July 31, is an interim measure while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs test the air quality in the estimated 120,000 travel trailers FEMA provided to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.

The agency most recently sent about 40 of the trailers to Miami, Okla., where residents were forced out of their homes because of flooding.

CDC workers began collecting samples last week from FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi, where more than 56,000 trailers are still occupied. Residents will be offered assistance finding new housing anywhere in the country, FEMA said in an internal memo, while buyers of surplus FEMA trailers will be offered full refunds.

“Nothing is as important to FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security as ensuring that disaster victims have a safe and healthy place to reside during their recovery,” the agency said in a statement.

Formaldehyde is the airborne form of a chemical used in a wide variety of products, including composite wood and plywood panels in the travel trailers FEMA purchased after Katrina. It 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.

MSNBC.com disclosed in July 2006 that many of the trailers harbored potentially harmful levels of formaldehyde, but testimony last month before a House subcommittee revealed that FEMA was aware of the problem several months earlier, after many of its own employees came forward with concerns.

As recently as late last month, FEMA said it would continue using the trailers, but congressional leaders were outraged after documents revealed that FEMA lawyers had advised the agency to downplay the concerns to “prevent ownership of the problem” and limit exposing the agency to liability issues.

Summer heat aggravates exposure
The congressional hearing was convened last month after Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Bobby Jindal, D-La., blasted FEMA for its seeming disregard of occupants’ complaints.

“This takes the cake,” Landrieu told NBC affiliate KPLC-TV of Lake Charles. “Now people living in the trailers have to worry if their children are breathing fumes that could cause cancer or some other disease.”

Many residents say that when they have complained about the risk, FEMA advised them to leave the windows open. But “the heat makes the formaldehyde very noticeable, and even though we’ve been here as long as we have, we still notice it,” said Nancy Sonnier, whose family has been living in one of the trailers in Vinton, La., since their home was destroyed by Hurricane Rita.

“My husband and I both have some health problems that we hadn’t had prior to the storm, and when they first started I really chalked it up to the stress,” Sonnier told KPLC, describing respiratory, sinus and intestinal problems, along with skin rashes, insomnia and headaches — all potential signs of formaldehyde poisoning.

“I usually spend my time outside,” said 7-year-old Mason Sonnier, “because of that stuff that my grandma talks about.” Evangeline Sonnier, 9, added: “It’s that toxic stuff. It can get you really sick.”

Trailers only, not mobile homes
FEMA Administrator David Paulison stressed in the memo that the directive applied only to recreational-style vehicles, such as trailers and larger park homes, which are designed for short-term housing, and not to mobile homes, which are regulated and tested by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Paulison said any occupant of a FEMA trailer could request replacement or alternative housing. The agency will refund the price of a trailer purchased within the past 12 months; authorize rental assistance, plus travel expenses, up to the fair market rate anywhere in the continental United States; offer residency in a mobile home, if available; or pay for hotels or motels until suitable housing can be found.

The order is likely to put a strain on FEMA, which said “additional temporary land will be immediately required within the Gulf Coast Recovery Office area of operation to meet ballooning capacity needs.”

The agency said that if necessary, it would exercise its authority under the 1988 Stafford Disaster Relief Act to take over as much as 1,300 acres of land to store 70,000 returned trailers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, most likely by forcing the closing or downsizing of recreational vehicle sites.

NBC affiliate KPLC of Lake Charles, La., contributed to this report.

Video: FEMA trailers housing danger?

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