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Toxic gas pervasive in FEMA units, tests show

The problem of toxic formaldehyde gas in housing used by Gulf  Coast hurricane victims is much more widespread than the government has acknowledged, has learned.
Daisy Carmouche reads the Bible on her couch where she spends most of her time since her medical condition deteriorated after moving into the FEMA-provided mobile home in Picayune, Miss.
Daisy Carmouche reads the Bible on her couch where she spends most of her time since her medical condition deteriorated after moving into the FEMA-provided mobile home in Picayune, Miss. Sean Gardner / for MSNBC
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More than two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered the Mississippi Gulf Coast, private tests of FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes provided to storm victims indicate that high levels of formaldehyde gas in the units is much more widespread than the government has acknowledged.

The previously undisclosed test results from nearly 600 units, reviewed by, found that 95 percent of the temporary housing units provided by FEMA measured at least twice the CDC’s maximum recommended level for long-term exposure to the toxic gas. In some extreme cases, the levels were 70 times the long-term standard.

The tests were conducted by the Sierra Club and a Galveston, Texas, law firm that is involved in federal litigation against the manufacturers of the travel trailers and mobile homes that FEMA distributed.

The federal government promised to test inhabited travel trailers and mobile homes but has not yet followed through.  Many of the trailers and mobile homes have been occupied for two years which makes the high formaldehyde levels a scientific mystery, since those levels typically decline significantly when units are ventilated by residents.

‘I really can't account for it’
“It’s really surprising,” said Mary DeVany, an industrial hygienist whose Vancouver, Wash., firm has conducted more than 100 of the tests. “I really can’t account for it.”

The results for mobile homes are especially puzzling, as the units had been presumed to be safer than travel trailers.  Mobile homes, which are mounted on a permanent chassis and contain at least 320 square feet of living space, are intended for long-term occupancy. The level of formaldehyde in building materials used in their manufacture is regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has halted distribution of travel trailers - described as campers no more than 45 feet in length — for temporary housing because of formaldehyde concerns and said it is working to move all 52,520 households currently residing in travel trailers nationwide into permanent housing. It also said it will provide temporary housing to anyone who expresses a desire to move out of travel trailers because of formaldehyde.

But the agency continues to provide mobile homes to disaster victims, including 50 it sent to people left homeless by last month’s wildfires in Southern California, according to FEMA spokeswoman Mary Margaret Walker. The agency also has agreed to donate up to 2,000 unused mobile homes to native American tribes, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., announced in June.

Walker did not respond to queries about the number of people on the Gulf Coast living in FEMA- provided mobile homes, but it is believed to be substantially lower than those in travel trailers.

Formaldehyde, a chemical used in a wide variety of products, 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.

An array of ailments
But apart from little-understood long-term health risks, many residents say the gaseous form of the chemical causes immediate ailments, including bloody noses, respiratory distress such as asthma, sinus infections and bronchitis, skin rashes and burning eyes.  The gas is emitted by composite wood and plywood panels in the FEMA units.

Joseph Carmouche, 82, and his 75-year-old wife, Daisy, of Picayune, Miss., are among those who wonder if the gas is harming them.

The Carmouches, who lost their home to Hurricane Katrina, have had a rash of health problems since they moved into a FEMA-provided mobile home in December 2005. Joseph Carmouche said his emphysema worsened significantly and he suffered an outbreak of bullous pemphigoid, a chronic autoimmune skin disease. His wife developed asthma severe enough to prompt her general practitioner to refer her to a pulmonologist.

When they had the mobile home tested for formaldehyde in July, more than a year and a half after they moved in, the reading came back at 0.186 parts per million (ppm) or more than 23 times the long-term maximum exposure level of 0.008 recommended by the Agency for Toxic  Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the federal  Centers for Disease Control.

The couple was in the midst of negotiations with FEMA to buy the mobile home at the time, but they have put any deal on hold until they get answers from the agency.

“We don’t know if we should attribute our health problems to the air quality or not, since we’re not experts,” Joseph Carmouche said. “We’re just curious and concerned.”

Carmouche and thousands of other residents in the temporary housing units continue to wait for the answers that might be provided by government-sanctioned testing.

Testing of occupied units delayed
The EPA, acting at FEMA’s behest, tested 96 unoccupied travel trailers on the Gulf Coast in October 2006, finding formaldehyde levels high enough to “cause acute symptoms in some people.”

But FEMA postponed a planned second round of testing of occupied FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes early this month, saying it needed additional time to decide what level of exposure would be acceptable and what thresholds would trigger specific actions.  Walker, the FEMA spokeswoman, told that the postponement of the testing of the occupied trailers was expected to be a short one.

The delay came 3 ½ months after the release at a congressional hearing of internal FEMA e-mail indicating that the agency had suppressed warnings about the health problems associated with formaldehyde exposure and had resisted testing since March 2006, in part because of fears over legal liability.

One June 2006 e-mail stated that FEMA’s Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing" because this "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." Another agency attorney advised "[d]o not initiate any testing until we give the OK. While I agree we should conduct testing we should not do so until we are fully prepared to respond to the results. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

In the absence of government testing, two private entities — the Sierra Club and the Buzbee Law Firm of Galveston, Texas — have stepped in.

“What we’re doing is confirming what our clients have been telling us is true, that they’re sick and the trailers are full of substances that are making them sick,” said Tony Buzbee, whose firm is involved in a federal lawsuit against the travel trailer and mobile home manufacturers filed on behalf of more than 3,200 residents of FEMA-provided housing.

Nine out of 580 meet long-term standard
The law firm alone has tested more than 580 travel trailers and mobile homes provided by FEMA to storm victims in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.  The results, which have not previously been made public, indicate that the scope of the formaldehyde problem is much broader than FEMA has acknowledged.

DeVany, the industrial hygienist who has conducted many of the tests, said that only 23 of the tested trailers and mobile homes “were at less than twice the acceptable long-term exposure limit” of 0.008 ppm and, of those, only nine were lower than the standard.

The vast majority of the units tested were travel trailers – some of which came back with readings as high as 0.56 ppm, or 70 times the long-term standard.  DeVany said that mobile homes, while generally showing lower concentrations of formaldehyde than the travel trailers, also came in well above the threshold, in some cases higher than 0.1 ppm. 

She said that suggests that manufacturers didn’t adhere to the HUD standard – 0.2 ppm for plywood and 0.3 ppm for particleboard at the time of manufacture - as they rushed to meet the demand for the units after Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast in August and October 2005, respectively.

“The results are too high to ever have met the HUD standard during manufacturing,” she said. “… We shouldn’t be seeing the levels we’re seeing a year and a half or two years later.”

But Peter Taafe, an attorney with Buzbee's law firm, said he has no firm evidence yet that manufacturers did not use "low-emitting" building materials as they rushed to meet demand.

Jesse Fineran, a former FEMA contractor in Mississippi who said he was fired after repeatedly urging his supervisors to address the formaldehyde problem, told that installation practices and the oppressive heat and humidity of the Gulf Coast also may be contributing to the problem.

‘Don't step there or you'll fall right through’
“These trailers were not designed to be perfectly level ... and when you level them, it breaks all the seams,” he said, referring to the standard practice of placing the travel trailers on blocks. “So water gets into the trailer and into the particle board and the wood and starts to break them down, and then the formaldehyde breaks down into a powder and gets back into the air. That’s why some of the ones that have been lived in have higher reading than the new ones.”

DeVany said she has seen anecdotal evidence to support that theory while making the rounds to place and retrieve formaldehyde test kits.

“In many of these units, the floors are falling apart,” she said. “You go in and the occupants say, ‘Don’t step there or you’ll fall right through.’”

HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley declined to comment on the specifics of the private testing, but said his agency has no reason to believe that the mobile home manufacturers violated the HUD standard.

“We are confident that manufactured homes that are regulated by HUD meet the standards set forth in Manufactured Home Construction and Safety Standard,” he said in a written response to questions submitted by “… These standards were not waived in this instance or in any other.”

Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Manufactured Housing Institute, which represents the mobile home industry, said the organization could not comment on the test results without additional details on the methodologies used to obtain them.

“Our technical staff still feels that the information provided is too limited and does not provide us with enough context to be able to adequately evaluate and comment on this issue,” he said. “We stand by the statement … that manufactured homes are built in compliance with the HUD code,  which sets limits on formaldehyde.”

‘They are intended for long-time use’
Walker, the FEMA spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment on the test results. But in reply to an earlier inquiry she said, “In mobile homes, the amount of formaldehyde in the construction supplies is governed by a HUD standard and all the mobile homes meet or exceed that standard. They are intended for long-time use.”

Becky Gillette, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said FEMA’s response echoes  the denials it made when the environmental organization first publicized the formaldehyde problem in travel trailers.

“We notified them of the problem with travel trailers a year ago March and got absolutely no response other than statements that there was no cause for concern,” she said.

The final determination on whether the formaldehyde levels have harmed the trailer and mobile home occupants may be rendered in a federal court in New Orleans, where  the consolidated lawsuit against the travel trailer and mobile home manufacturers will be heard starting in January.

Buzbee, the Texas attorney involved in the lawsuit, said he expects the case will be long and complex, and predicted that the defendants will attack the use of the CDC’s standard for long-term exposure to formaldehyde.

“A case like this, that’s going to be one of 50 arguments they’ll make,” he said. “They’ll argue that as government contractors they should be immune. They’ll argue that the testing is faulty. You can only imagine how many defenses they’ll throw up when there are more than 3,000 plaintiffs and the exposure they face could be in the billions of dollars.”

With any resolution of the legal case years away, the Huckabees of Kiln, Miss., and many others in similar situations see no short-term alternative to living in a FEMA mobile home that they believe has made them sick.

‘Formaldehyde free’ home exceeds workplace standard
Lindsay Huckabee, who testified before Congress in July about the health problems she and her husband, Steven, and five children have experienced in two FEMA mobile homes,  said the couple was assured by FEMA officials that the second one — the one they still occupy — would be “formaldehyde free.”

But after the family moved in, the new unit tested at 0.108 ppm for formaldehyde, higher than the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s 0.1 ppm standard for one-time workplace exposure.  “They basically said ‘this one is lower than the other one, so we’re good, right?’” Huckabee said.

She said that fresh air and the use of two donated air purifiers had eased their symptoms over the summer, but they returned recently when they began using the heat again.

“Everyone’s waking up with sore throats again,” she said. “I’m guessing it’s the ducts heating up the boards and releasing more of the formaldehyde.”

Much scarier are the strange symptoms their youngest son, Michael, who will be 2 in January, has begun exhibiting.

“He was in the hospital three weeks ago because his lips kept turning blue,” Huckabee said. “It only happens for a few seconds at a time, but it’s frequent enough to where it started to scare me a bit. ... His doctor said he’s got something similar to carbon monoxide poisoning. Now we’re trying to figure out if formaldehyde exposure might exhibit similar symptoms.”

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said stories like that make it clear that FEMA must immediately test the occupied travel trailers and mobile homes.

“‘FEMA officials in Washington have repeatedly failed to take the steps needed to protect the thousands of families living in trailers and mobile homes,” he said. “FEMA should start following through on its promise to test the trailers and start making the health and safety of these families a priority.”