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.”
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.”