Air-quality tests will begin Dec. 21 on government-issued trailers housing Gulf Coast hurricane victims, and initial results are due out in February, federal officials said Thursday.
About 500 occupied trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi will be tested for formaldehyde levels under the plan announced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Formaldehyde is a common preservative and embalming fluid found in building materials for manufactured homes. It can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Many trailer occupants are blaming ailments on formaldehyde.
Testing is expected to take about five weeks, with a summary of findings to follow the testing and data analysis. Trailer occupants are expected to get the test results for their units in mid-February. Officials hope to release a final report on their findings in mid-May.
Henry Falk, director of the CDC's Coordinating Center for Environmental Health and Injury Prevention, said there are no existing standards for gauging air quality in trailers and "no sharp, direct way" of predicting the health effects of formaldehyde.
"Some people will react at higher levels. Some people might react to formaldehyde at lower levels," he told reporters in New Orleans.
Trailers and transitions
An estimated 46,700 households still live in travel trailers or mobile homes along the Gulf Coast, more than two years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed tens of thousands of homes.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, speaking to reporters from Washington, D.C., said about 800 Gulf Coast families a week have been moving out of trailers and into alternative housing.
FEMA has been moving families from trailers to hotel and motel rooms or apartments. More than 6,500 families in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas have asked FEMA to move them out of trailers amid health concerns.
In Louisiana, the agency plans to close all its remaining trailer park sites by the end of May. The federal government is helping residents move from the trailers, which FEMA officials say were only intended as temporary shelter, to permanent housing.
"Clearly, the travel trailers ought not to be a long-term housing solution," said Jim Stark, head of the FEMA office in New Orleans.
Scientists plan to test several different models of trailers, by different manufacturers. Trailer occupants will be given a questionnaire on how they use the trailer, to identify factors that could affect formaldehyde emission levels.
Higher temperatures and humidity can heighten the effects of formaldehyde, so Falk said another round of tests may be conducted next summer.
"We want people to understand this is a single test at a single point in time," he added.